No Tool Is The Right Tool

You can’t accept yourself on purpose. It is utter nonsense to imagine that this could be possible; it is nonsense to imagine that we can accept ourselves on purpose because anything we do ‘on purpose’ always involves two things – it always involves ‘the thing that we want’ and ‘the thing that we don’t want’. For there to be a goal there must also be a ‘not-goal’ – purposefulness wouldn’t work otherwise! How could we have ‘a goal’ without also having something that is not the goal, something that has to be rejected or gotten rid of as being ‘unwanted’ or ‘undesired’? There can be no ‘right’ without ‘wrong’…

 

When we try to accept ourselves on purpose therefore we find that we are always ‘rejecting’ to the same extent that we are ‘accepting’. There’s a paradox here in other words – if I am to accept myself then I must ‘reject the me that is unaccepting of itself’, as Alan Watts says, and this means that my act of deliberate acceptance is also an act of rejection, an act of denial, an act of raw aggression. I am ‘resisting my resistance’!

 

All purposeful acts have this dual nature of involving acceptance and non-acceptance, wanting and not wanting, liking and disliking – that’s how purposefulness works, as we have just said. That’s how goals work – there is a bias there, a prejudice there, an agenda there. That is what a goal (or a ‘purpose’) IS after all – it’s a bias, it’s a prejudice, it’s an agenda. This might sound so obvious as to be not worth mentioning but it is worth mentioning because we are all so convinced that we ought to be able to accept ourselves on purpose – we think that self-acceptance can be turned into a goal for the rational mind, in other words!

 

The rational mind can do many jobs but this is not one of them! It is a peculiarity of our Western rational culture that we think that the thinking mind should be able to do all jobs, including the jobs that involve changing how we feel about ourselves (or how we feel generally). But what would the thinking mind know about that – the thinking mind doesn’t feel anything! Our situation is like that of the carpenter who has only one tool (i.e. a hammer) and who therefore thinks that everything must be a nail!

 

Where this metaphor falls down here however is that – in this particular case – all tools are the wrong tool! It’s not as if we have to put the hammer back into the tool kit and pull out the screwdriver or the chisel or the handsaw instead! All tools are the wrong tool because tools are always about goals, always about agendas. When we use a tool we always have a positive orientation towards the ‘right outcome’ and a negative orientation towards the ‘wrong outcome’. ‘Accepting ourselves’ CAN’T be made into a goal, as we have already said – that would mean that there is a ‘right outcome’ and a ‘wrong outcome’ and when we are fixated upon not getting the wrong outcome (as we are bound to be when we have a goal in mind) then we are rejecting; we are ‘flexing the muscle of rejection in the name of acceptance’, which is of course utterly ridiculous.

 

There can’t be any straining towards acceptance – ‘straining’ means that we are ‘rejecting where we are’ and ‘trying to get somewhere different’ and there’s nothing very ‘accepting’ about that! Straining (or trying) is always about rejection, it is always about resistance, and this is precisely what we seem to find so very hard to understand. The idea of striving (or trying) to accept a situation (or ourselves) is an example of our complete lack of insight, our certain lack of psychological understanding as a culture. The problem is however that we simply don’t know what else to do. We are ‘at a loss’ and we can’t help feeling that it is better to do something than it is to ‘do nothing’, even if ‘doing something’ doesn’t actually work…

 

We do have other resources apart from the rational purposeful mind however – we just don’t know about them. We have another, much more powerful resource at our disposal and this is a ‘resource’ that is quite different from the fixing/analysing machine that is the thinking mind. What we are talking about here is our capacity to attend to (or be aware of) what is going on in the present moment. This happens to be a very underrated capacity – more than just underrated, this capacity of ours is something that we simply have no comprehension of it all. There’s nothing there for us to grasp hold of, nothing there for us to logically understand or prove. As we read in Chapter 3 of the Dao de Jing,

Hold aloft the Great Image,

The whole world will go to it…

Dao, when it is uttered by the mouth,

Is so bland that it has no flavour

When looked at, it is invisible,

When listened to, it is inaudible,

When in use, it is an inexhaustible.

The ‘Great Image’ is that which we can readily understand (i.e., in psychological terms, ‘a method’ or ‘a strategy’) whilst the Dao is precisely what we can never understand. We go with the thing we can understand therefore even though it doesn’t work. We go with it ‘by default’, we go with it because we don’t believe in anything else  – or rather the thinking mind doesn’t! The thinking mind only believes in control. ‘Attending to what is going on in the present moment’, on the other hand, does not involve controlling (or trying to control) what is going on. If we are trying to control it then how can we ‘attend’ to it? We are too caught up in our futile attempts to change it then – the evaluating or judging eye can never see truly. When we try to change what’s going on then we are inevitably distancing ourselves from it and it is our ‘trying’ (or our ‘striving’) that is creating this distance. Our trying actually IS the distance. There are fixing / analysing mind always creates distance therefore – no matter what it does it will always create distance and it is this distance stands in the way of genuine change. It is this ‘distance’ that jinxes us every time….

 

‘Attending to what is going on’ has nothing to do with ‘acceptance’ in the usual sense of the word therefore. Instead of trying – in a perfectly futile way – to accept ourselves all that is needed is for us to attend to ourselves. We aren’t trying to change anything here – there no question of us trying to be different in any way, no question of us either accepting or rejecting anything. There’s no right or wrong way – we are simply relating to ourselves as we happen to be, whatever way we happen to be. No one is saying that we have to like ourselves either – it’s a lot simpler, a lot more essential than that. We are not being called upon to like ourselves – it’s not about liking or disliking – all of that is irrelevant. We’re not projecting anything on the situation, that’s not needed.

 

Our instinct probably tells us that there is nothing to be gained from this simple ‘attending’. The idea of ‘attending to ourselves’ generally seems pointless, fruitless. But the ‘point’ is that when we relate to ourselves in this very direct, very simple way then we are utilising that capacity that we don’t know we have, that capacity that we do not value or appreciate at all. In Daoist terms, we are drawing upon the power of the Dao, the power of ‘the natural way of things’. We are drawing upon the power of the Dao because we are not trying to change anything, because we’re not trying to gain anything. The whole world is busy trying to gain something but we’re not. We are not falling into that trap!

 

Another way of putting this is to say that by not trying to accept anything (anything in particular that is) we have actually accepted Everything. We have got rid of all friction. We have ‘accepted everything’ without intending to, without meaning to, without making it our aim or agenda to. We have ‘accepted everything’ in this very simple way, just by ‘attending’ to it. If don’t like myself, if I hate myself, then I don’t object to this (or in any way resist it), I simply see that this is the case!

 

It’s easy to see that ‘this is the case’ – it’s easy because it actually IS the case! Nothing needs to be changed. I don’t need to object to my non-acceptance of myself because I haven’t got any agenda going. I’m only in the business of ‘attending’ and there is no straining or resisting in attending. I’m not trying to ‘rise above myself’ in any way. I’m not trying to pull myself up into the air by my own shoelaces. And if I see that I am trying to change myself (if I see that I am trying to pull myself into the air by my own shoelaces) then that too is simply ‘how I am’ and there is no need to change that either. As we have said, I’m in the business of attending, not manipulating, not controlling, not judging. When I see that I am resisting what’s going on then that is just ‘how I am’ and so that is simply something else for me to attend to. It’s not ‘a problem to be fixed’ by the fixing mind!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chasing Being

In this world we try to construct our being out of our doing – that’s the type of world we live in. This is the type of message we have been given right from the word ‘go’. We are encouraged to ‘do’, we are (to some extent or another) given support for our ‘doing’; we are on the other hand given zero encouragement to ‘be’, we are given zero support for our ‘being’. We’re actively penalized for ‘being’, since to be is to drop out of the social game that we are all playing, and ‘dropping out of the game’ has never been encouraged by any society.

 

‘Doing’ is very highly valued in the Western world – the implication is always that it will lead to something great, the implication is always that it will definitely need to some marvellous state of being. This is precisely where our error lies, therefore. Successful doing can of course lead to a highly desirable socially-constructed identity (just as being unsuccessful can lead to another, rather ‘less desirable’ type of socially–constructed identity), but ‘identity’ is not at all the same thing as being. It is a substitute for it, but it is not the same thing.

 

There is no being in identity! This is the same as saying that there is no being in a label, or no being in a mask – of course there isn’t! What could be hollower than a label or a mask? To chase after an identity as if this were the same thing as being is therefore the road to nowhere. No matter what sort of identity we obtain as a result of our efforts it’s not going to do it any good – all identities are the same, all identities are hollow. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a socially-approved identity or a socially-disapproved one, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a highly prized ‘winner identity’, or a not-so-highly-valued ‘loser identity’ that we have obtained for ourselves – it is hollow either way.

 

We never really look at this idea, the idea that says it is possible to be someone as a result of ‘successful doing’ (which is the idea that the idea that we can somehow find being through our doing). The pain caused by our lack of being drives us unrelentingly; it causes us to put that special emphasis on our goal-orientated activity. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with goals therefore, only that if the goal we are chasing secretly stands for our ‘missing being’ then the effort we are putting into this endeavour is always going to be wasted effort’. We are busy chasing an illusion in this case. Whenever we get too serious, too driven in relation to our goals this is because we are – unbeknownst to ourselves – trying to obtain ‘being’ as a result of our ‘successful doing’. Whenever we get humourlessly fixated in this way, then it is inevitably the case that we are actually trying to find our ‘missing being’. We are looking for it in a place there it isn’t, in a place where it never can be. How can our ‘missing being’ be tied up with the realisation of some concrete goal? Or to put this another way, how could we ever make a goal of finding our ‘missing being’ when we don’t have the faintest clue as to what this missing being is, or what on earth it would look like even if we did find it? How is this endeavour ever going to work out for us?

 

We don’t of course know that we are trying to find our missing being as a result of our tightly-focussed goal-orientated behaviour. If we knew that then we would be on the right track! We don’t know this at all – we don’t have the faintest clue as to what our real motivation is, we don’t actually have any reason to suspect that it isn’t what it declares itself to be. Our situation – therefore – is that we unconsciously believe that we can make up for our inner, invisible deficit (the deficit that comes with identifying with the mind-created image of ourselves) by engaging in the correct type of goal-orientated behaviour; a more conventional way of expressing this would be would simply be to say that we believe that we can ‘fundamentally or radically better ourselves’ on purpose, by pure effort of will.

 

In one sense (admittedly a very superficial sense) this assumption is true – by exercising and taking care of our physical body and eating well and adopting what is generally called a ‘healthy lifestyle’ we can indeed ‘improve our situation’; in terms of what really matters in life however – which is (we might say) ‘to reconnect with who we really are’ (or ‘re-engage with the authentic inner life that we have long-since forgotten about’) there are no logical/purposeful steps that we can take to bring this about. No one can make a goal of remedying their inner deficit (or rather we can do but not in a meaningful way) – no matter what goal it is we come up with, it’s never going to be more than an extension (or projection) of our own unconsciousness. Who we really are can’t be made into a ‘goal’ and so there can be no such thing as ‘the right type of goal-orientated behaviour that can somehow bring it into being’.

 

Goals are doing (just as theories and strategies and the actions that arise out of these theories are ‘doing’) and being can never come about as a result of doing! Not even the most determined, assiduous, high-intensity doing that there ever was can bring about actual being – if there isn’t any actual being at the beginning of things then there can’t be any at the end. Unreality can’t be turned into reality no matter how hard we labour at it! It is actually a deficit in being that drives all our overvalued purposeful activities – if we felt complete or full on the inside then of course we aren’t going to be ‘overly goal-orientated’. We would no longer be so very hungry, so very needy… As the mystics have been saying for thousands of years, it is the ‘unconscious or unacknowledged perception of a lack of completeness’ causes us to crave completeness without knowing what it is that we are craving. and it is this ‘craving’ that accounts for most of the everyday activity we see around us. This type of ‘displacement-motivation’ is what drives the economy – we’re looking for ourselves in the wrong place!

 

So within the mystical/spiritual traditions it might be said that we are ‘grasping at illusions’ and that it is this misguided activity that brings us so much unhappiness. This – quite possibly – may not make very much sense to us – we may object for example that that what we are busy grasping at are real things, not illusions! Who is attracted to illusions. after all? The point is however that we are not so much grasping for the things themselves but what they represent to us without us even realising that they are representing anything! The things we are grasping at, are trying to obtain, hold an extra degree of attractiveness to us because they seem to be promising us some special, magical ‘X factor’ that we can’t help being magnetically attracted to. We’re attracted but we don’t ever wonder why we’re so attracted. We just know that the object of our desire is promising us ‘something great’ and that is good enough for us! We know on some level or other that there’s ‘something good out there in the world’, something good that we don’t have, and so we are very keen indeed to get our share of the special thing (or magical quality) that we feel we are missing out on! Everyone wants a slice of the pie after all, and that’s what consumerism is all about.

 

This is why ‘doing’ is idolised to the extent that it is in our world therefore. Nothing inspires us as much as ‘the myth of the supremely successful doer’ and all we can do is to try to approximate that myth as best we can in our own lives. All we can do is try to get some of that special action kudos to work for us! We’re too fast off the starting block though – we’re too fast off the starting block because we’ve got things the wrong way around – we don’t produce being out of doing, but rather being produces doing.

 

We have put the cart before the horse and things just aren’t going to work this way! There is a parallel to this idea in Taoism and the philosophy of Eastern martial arts where it is said that action is only effective when it comes out of stillness. Very much along similar lines, D. H. Lawrence writes: “One’s action ought to come out of an achieved stillness: not to be a mere rushing on.” Stillness is where our good sense lies (our wisdom rather than our intellectual smartness) and if our actions don’t come out of stillness they’re not just going to be ‘ineffective’, they’re going to be painfully counter-productive (or self-defeating).

 

This is actually a pretty fair assessment of what’s going on in the world around us, the world of human affairs – lots and lots of doing that hasn’t come out of ‘stillness’ (or ‘wisdom’) at all! Our doing has become extraordinarily ‘clever’ (‘clever’ in a superficial sense, that is) and this of course makes things worse for us not better. Mankind has been self-defined as ‘the tool-using animal’ and our tools are becoming ever more sophisticated – they are in fact becoming ever more sophisticated at an exponentially-increasing rate. And the result of this is that we are now living in a world that has been created as the result of the invisible assumptions that lie behind our tools being played out (or concretized) in the form of the concrete environment within which we live. It is as if our tools bring with them unwanted side-effects that define us and our world without us even being able to see how we have been defined. We didn’t see the ‘side-effects’ coming, and we don’t see them when they arrive either – we don’t see them when they arrive because it is the ‘side-effects’ of our tool-use (which is to say, the conditioning effect of the invisible limitations inherent in our assumptions) that determine precisely what we see and cannot see.

 

Enacting the age-old principle therefore, ‘the tool usurps the user of the tool’; the servant/instrument overthrows the master and no good is ever going to come about as a result of this. This very simple principle is illustrated by the fairy tale of the Magic Porridge Pot, which can feed the hungry if it is used properly, but which will drown the whole village under six feet of run-away porridge if there is no one there who actually knows how to use this valuable tool. ‘Knowing how to use the tool’ means knowing how to stop using the tool when the job is done, and if we don’t know how to do this (as we don’t) then disaster is only just around the corner. This motif is also echoed in such tales as Why the Sea is Salt (and ‘The Master and his Pupil’). A more modern variant of this theme is of course the well-known science fiction motif of ‘Frankenstein’s monster’, typified by the Terminator series of films (see for example, ‘The Rise of the Machines’). ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is our own ‘disconnected cleverness’, which is directly analogous to what we have been calling ‘doing without being’.

 

On a personal/individual level, we might say that this comes down to ‘reacting’ rather than consciously responding (or not responding, as the case may be). It is perfectly possible – if not more-than-just-possible) to go through the whole of our lives ‘running on reflex’, reacting mechanically without ever questioning our own reactions. Without a shadow of a doubt, this ranks as the most ‘suffering-producing’ way of living that they ever could be – we ricochet from one painful situation to another in the most senseless way imaginable, and we call this ‘living our lives’. This is after all the only type of life we know; as far as we’re concerned there is no other type and all we can do is endure it as best we can. On the collective level, it may be said that we have ‘externalised our mechanical reflexes’ and turned them into an entire environment which we inhabit – a conditioned environment which defines our lives for us. This is of course no better than the first scenario we mentioned, which is where we allow our internal reflexes of thoughts or behaviour to run our lives for us, as if there is actually some sense inherent in them!

 

Ultimately, both the internal reflexes and the external ones (i.e.the ‘Machine Environment’) are one and the same thing, which is that thing that David Bohm calls ‘the system of thought‘. The remedy either way is simply for us to learn how to turn the machine/servant off, so that it doesn’t run our lives for us. The horse needs to be put before the cart again, if the natural order of things is to be restored. Instead of ‘doing–without–being’ (or ‘disconnected doing’), we need to bring being back into the picture again. This is of course easier said than done but it is a perfectly natural process that we are talking about here (rather than some sort of artificial imposition) and all we need to do in order to work with this natural process (instead of against it) is to see how we have got everything back to front, to see how we have put the cart before the horse. We can’t stop all of this heedless, runaway mechanical doing (all of this ‘disconnected cleverness’) on purpose (‘by force’, or by ‘will power’) but what we can do is allow ourselves to see that ‘being can never come from doing’, and when we can clearly see this we will inevitably stop putting all our money on a horse that can never win. We’ll still put some money on this horse of course – we will continue to invest in our automatic behaviour patterns to some extent – but ‘the heart will have gone out of it’, so to speak. We will no longer believe that we can create being with our frantic competitive doing and so we won’t be ‘lost in that doing’ in the completely immersive way that we were before. We will start to separate ourselves from our rational thinking and our purposeful doing and it is this process of separating ourselves from the illusion-seeking behaviour (which is sometimes called ‘the process of disidentification’) that brings about our actual being, or actual presence in our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Formulaic Approach To Anxiety

There is a huge amount of misinformation and obfuscation about anxiety going around – the self-help section in any bookstore in town is pretty much guaranteed to be full of it. All of our approaches to anxiety suffer from the fault of being far too superficial; they suffer from the fault of being ‘superficial to the point of being entirely useless’ – and this is a rather curious thing. Why do we feel compelled to treat anxiety in this way? Why can’t we just be straight-up about it when this would obviously be ‘the helpful thing to do’? Why are we always so damn trivial when it comes to ‘the psychology of anxiety’? Søren Kierkegaard, writing over a hundred and fifty years ago, was able to take a ‘non-trivial approach’ to anxiety, so why can’t we? What’s wrong with us?

 

The ‘misinformation’ or ‘obfuscation’ that we’re talking about here comes down to the idea that if we are anxious and we do ‘X’ – whatever the hell ‘X’ might be (and it could be anything at all) – then this will help us. We are given the idea (in a very authoritative way) that there is a formula that can be used to free us from anxiety and although the formula in question may vary from authority to authority (as is usually the way) the idea that there is, or should be, a formula is constant. We are always being told that there is a formula, that there is ‘a thing that we can do’ or ‘ a method we can follow’. This is ‘misinformation’ because it’s simply not true – anything we deliberately do in order to ‘free ourselves from the anxiety’ is the anxiety, and if we can’t see this then we can’t see anything!

 

There is a very good reason why – culturally speaking – we seem to be so insistent on spreading this facile ‘formulaic approach’ to anxiety and that reason has to do with what Alan Watts calls ‘the taboo against knowing who you are’. The idea that there is a societal taboo against knowing who we are sounds very strange to us – we all go around after all constantly saying who we are, making confident and definite statements about our identity. Aren’t we just delighted with all the labels that we have accumulated saying ‘who we are’? Isn’t that what life seems to be all about – proudly saying who we are, and what we are all about?

 

All of that takes place in our public life, however – this kind of ‘identity-affirming’ stuff is no good at all when we are thrown back on ourselves and have to relate to what’s really going on with us. Labels and designations aren’t going to provide any satisfaction or validation here, obviously. So straightaway we can see that there are two domains here – there is the domain of public life which is the theatrical world of how we are seen and how we want to be seen and there is the inner world that is not on display for everybody else and which is not a ‘mere societal construct’. The taboo that we are talking about is the taboo about against knowing anything about this inner world therefore. It’s not just the case that this is something that we know we mustn’t bring up in polite conversation, but rather it is a world that we are not supposed to give any credence to at all. It doesn’t take too much in the way of philosophical reflection or introspection to see that we live in a world that is very much all about ‘the outside’ and not at all about ‘the inside’. Who could possibly deny this? One would have to be very foolish indeed to say that this isn’t the case!

 

Our everyday life is therefore dedicated to the ‘outer man’ or the ‘outer woman’ – this is unquestionably what our culture celebrates, to the complete exclusion of any other more profound type of life! We celebrate ‘the generic life’ (which is the life that ‘doesn’t really belong to anyone’) when it comes right down to it. It doesn’t belong to us and so whatever we do or don’t do is of no consequence outside of this theatrical realm. It’s all pure time-wasting, in other words! It’s ‘time-wasting’ because it’s not about what matters to us as the individuals we are, but rather it’s about those concerns and interests that are foisted upon us by the ‘overvalent generic mind’, if we can put it like that. The ‘overvalent generic mind’ puts thoughts into our heads a thousand times a day and we then think that these thoughts are ours, and if this isn’t ‘time wasting’ then what is? We have become ‘the tool of thought’ rather than vice versa. The ‘outer life’ is that so-called life which intrudes upon us from morning to night and which is basically selling us issues to ‘take seriously’, issues ‘to worry about’ that are actually completely and utterly spurious. In our normal state of being we are unable to spot these thoughts for what they are and as a consequence we spend most of our waking hours being preoccupied by them, one way or another.

 

In psychiatry we talk about ‘intrusive thoughts’ – which are distressing thoughts or ideas that burst in on us – and it could be said that all of our everyday thoughts are like this, albeit to a lesser degree. It could be said that our whole culture (the ‘positive’ or ‘defined’ world that we have built up around ourselves) is like this – it is ‘extrinsically originated’, forceful, brash and entirely ‘lacking in soul’. It’s all appearance with no content, action with no poetry, mechanical motivation or impetus with nowhere real to go to. This is the world of the glossy image with nothing behind it, the world of the pretence that has long since left reality far behind! To understand this is to understand something very important about anxiety: anxiety, on an essential level, has to do with defending an image of ourselves, defending a ‘role’ we are playing but which we don’t know ourselves to be playing, rather than defending or securing who we are behind all that. We don’t know who we are behind the role or act – all of our awareness is hooked onto the coat-hanger which is the rational mind’s concrete version of us.

 

When we allow ourselves to be defined – and therefore ‘narrowed down’ – by the profoundly unpoetical rational mind (which is the same thing as allowing ourselves to be defined and ‘narrowed down’ by society, society being an extension of that mind) then we gain in terms of how certain (or ‘solid’) we feel our existence to be, but we lose in terms of how real we feel. Instead of real we feel ‘solid’, and this is the trade-off that we are making. As a result of making the trade-off ‘solid/definite/concrete’ substitutes itself for real, which thus comes to mean the same thing to us, even though it isn’t at all. Solid/definite/concrete is not the same as ‘real’ because none of these terms have any application whatsoever to reality. Reality as it is in itself becomes unknown to us therefore and we trade on ‘concreteness’ instead, trying to squeeze whatever good we can out of it.

 

This is where the problem lies however because – ultimately – we can’t squeeze any good out of the concrete because there is no good in it to be squeezed out! There’s nothing there at all actually, either ‘good’ or otherwise. There’s nothing in an image, nothing in an act, obviously. That’s why an image is called ‘an image’, that’s why an act is called ‘an act’. What we do get out of the concrete surrogate for reality is (of course) ‘a sense of ontological security’. This sense of security substitutes for reality, in other words, even though there is no such thing as ‘security’ in the real world. What we’re doing comes down to a trick therefore – we get intense reassurance from the ‘concrete representation of reality’ and we like that a lot (obviously) but the other side of the coin is the ‘negative reassurance’ that occurs when we find ourselves face-to-face with a concrete representation of reality that we don’t like. It cuts both ways, in other words. It’s impossible to obtain the good feeling that we like from the concrete representation of reality without at the same time putting ourselves directly in line with a corresponding bad feeling that we don’t like which can just as easily be supplied for us by the conceptual mind. ‘Definite’ always comes in two flavours, we could say – either positive or negative, either ‘definitely like’ or ‘definitely don’t like’, and it can’t come as one without also coming the other. This is abundantly clear once we take the trouble to reflect on the matter.

 

So the first thing we can see from all this is that opting for the security of the concrete representation of reality that the thinking mind provides us with sets us up for an endless sequence of up-and-down, pleasure and pain, hope and fear. We go ‘up’ only to be taken ‘down’ again later on and yet we see ‘up’ as being the best thing ever! We see ‘up’ as the best thing ever, but really it’s just ‘down’ in disguise. Another way of expressing this is simply to say that ‘attachment brings suffering’ which is a very familiar formula to any student of Buddhism or Vedanta. If we look deeper into what is going on here we can also gain an important insight into how anxiety arises. We don’t just have the euphoria/dysphoria cycle to contend with in unconscious living, we also have fundamental anxiety! One way to look at anxiety is to say – as we did earlier on – that it comes about as a result of us defending the image or idea of ourselves. Although the image is very definite (and therefore reassuring for us in an ‘ontological-security sense’) it is at the same time entirely hollow, entirely lacking in any actual reality. Although we can’t directly see this (we can’t see it because we are, as we have said, taking ‘definite/concrete’ as an indication of the presence of reality) we nevertheless have an indirect awareness of this disconcerting lack of reality, this disconcerting lack of any genuine basis, and this indirect awareness is what we call ‘ontological insecurity’.

 

In the normal run of things we don’t perceive ontological insecurity as being what it actually is (i.e. we don’t perceive it as a ‘grasping for a type of reassurance that just doesn’t exist in the world’); we don’t perceive this at all but rather we perceive it ourselves to be ‘striving positively after legitimate values in life’. So, is to give a very simplistic example, we could build a seven foot wall all around the house because we feel that there is an actual danger out there rather than because we feel inherently unsafe in ourselves. Being orientated to concrete goals appears to be meaningful stance to us not because of our insecurity or uncertainty about life in general, but because of some supposed ‘positive value’ that exists in the goals themselves. When we displace our insecurity effectively then the anxiety inherent in our situation will not show itself; as long as we can ‘trick ourselves effectively’ via this displacement mechanism we will not feel anxious, in other words. The thing about self-deception however is that when any awareness at all does start to come back into the picture (which it is bound to sooner or later) then we will start to feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘unsettled’ in a very particular way, we will start or feel uncomfortable and unsettled in that ‘very particular way’ that we call anxiety.

 

When we are anxious and we try to solve anxiety by carrying out some action (no matter what that action might be) then the essential nature of what we are doing is in no way different from what we do when we engage in everyday unconscious displacement activity – we’re ‘trying to get away from what we are afraid of’ in both cases! The only difference is that in the second case (which is where we try to ‘manage’ our anxiety) then we know that we are anxious but at the saying time we are still legitimizing our activity by saying that we are ‘doing something positive’, so to speak. We are not running away from something that we are afraid of; we are on the contrary striving to fix a problem that needs to be fixed. The thing about this however – as we have just said – is that there is no essential difference in what we doing. We are only imagining that there is a difference! If it was the case that it were possible for is to ‘do something’ (i.e. for us to purposefully enact some specific type of behaviour’) that would reduce our levels of anxiety in a long-term way, then what we are doing would of course be ‘entirely legitimate and above board’. It would be legitimate in this case but the only thing is that there no way that ‘doing something to get rid of the anxiety’ is ever going to bring about the result that we are looking for! Just as ‘running away from the fear is the fear’, so too is ‘trying to overcome the fear’ nothing but that same fear.

 

The only ‘legitimate’ stance we can take with regard to fear is no stance, just as the only legitimate (or ‘helpful’) response we can make to anxiety is not to make a response. If we do make a response then no matter what tour responses is it will be the response of the narrow, fragmented sense of self that we think we are, and since it is this narrow, fragmented (or concrete) sense of self that is at the root of our anxiety, doing this is not going to help us any! To act on behalf of an illusory, suffering-producing ‘concrete image of the self’ is to perpetuate that self, and not only is it perpetuating this self, it is of course also perpetuating the suffering that comes with it. All that is needed for us to grasp this is to understand that we are not at all we think we are, and that it is possible to be absolutely convinced that we are this concrete sense of identity, and yet for this not to be true at all! This very simple insight is all that’s needed for us to be free from anxiety!

 

Of course, this ‘simple little thing’ that we need to grasp just happens to be the most unlikely thing that we are ever going to see. People can understand all sorts of intellectually challenging stuff, but even the smartest professor in town won’t understand this. The man or woman with the highest IQ in the whole country won’t understand this point! Yet even though there is an intellectual element to this awareness (which can be discussed and analyzed by the thinking mind) – what we’re talking about here is a very practical, down-to-earth thing rather than any sort of high-flown ‘attainment’. When we say that someone is ‘kindhearted’ or ‘generous’ or unselfish’ (or whatever word we might want to use) this obviously isn’t something that happens as a result of a particular intellectual understanding that they have developed about themselves or the world. It comes about, on the contrary, as a result of their actual genuine nature showing itself. It’s a natural as a tree putting out leaves. This is what in Buddhism is sometimes called ‘the good mind’ – the good mind being the mind which is naturally concerned with the well-being of others rather than being exclusively concerned with its own advantage.

 

This almost inevitably sounds like an issue of morality, which in turn automatically jinxes it for us. We are so used to being bombarded with messages that tell us to be good and not bad, unselfish rather than selfish, kind not mean, patient not cross, virtuous and not sinful, and so on, that we have become completely numb to it. We switch off when we hear it. The problem arises – as P. D. Ouspensky says somewhere – in the fact that we are never told how we might go about following these lofty moral instructions. Our ‘moral development’, so to speak (and this seems to be particularly true in the Christian world) consists of us being given rules and then being put under pressure to obey them. ‘Successful obeying of the rules’ is what is needed if we are to satisfy the overarching moral code. This is a complete jinxes us however because – as we have already indicated – the narrow or concrete sense of identity cannot become ‘wider’ or ‘more inclusive’ as a result of following rules or procedures. Anything we do on the behalf of the ‘fragmentary-or-isolated self’ perpetuates that self. We cannot ‘redeem ourselves’ as a result of our own willed actions, no matter how hard we push ourselves.

 

Anxiety is in inevitable corollary of living life on the basis of the concrete identity which is ‘the act we put on without knowing that we are’. We’re trying to prove a point that can’t be proved; we’re trying to say that we are what we aren’t! Because of the ‘switchover’ that has taken place when we accepted the rational mind’s dubious offer of ‘ontological security at any price’, ‘certainty’ is seen as being synonymous with reality itself (as we have said) and so we are effectively ‘wedded to certainty’. Being ‘wedded (or addicted) to certainty’ means that we are ‘trapped in the vibration,’ it means that we going to be going up-and-down, up-and-down (with respect to the perceived well-being of the concrete self) forever. It also means that at the very heart of things (at the very heart of ‘he unconscious life’ there is always going to be this terrible anxiety – the anxiety that comes from saying that ‘the unreal is real’ and basing the whole of our lives upon this flagrant inversion of the truth. The concrete sense of self, for all its ‘obviousness’, is a castle built in the clouds, and there’s no way that we can inhabit it in the firm belief that it is built upon solid ground, without incurring anxiety. Anxiety is simply ‘the truth that we are repressing’ coming back at us in a very disturbing way. We absolutely can’t control or rationalise our way out of this predicament, there is no ‘logical exit route’ out of the trap. There’s more to us than mere logic however, and when we tap in to the ‘Wider Reality’, into ‘the reality has not been produced by the conceptual mind’ (which we never have much interest in), then we find something there can help us in an entirely illogical (or ‘irrational’) way!

 

 

Image – free images on pixabay.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Machine Self

The biggest thing that we don’t know, but would benefit immensely from knowing, is that we are constantly turning ourselves into machines, for all the world as if there was some great advantage to be had in this! We turn into machines out of laziness and fear of responsibility on the one hand, and as a result of the unrelenting pressure of society on the other hand, which wants us to become machines. Society wants us to become machines because it – needless to say – is itself a machine. Society is a machine and it needs us to become machines too.

 

A handy definition of a machine – in this context – is to say that a machine is something that always does everything for a reason. Alan Watts says that a person who always does everything for a purpose is a ‘vulture’, which is nicely put, but we could just as well say that such a person is ‘a machine’. When we put ourselves in the position of doing everything for a purpose’ we demean ourselves – worse than just demean, we lose ourselves. The mechanical world is a world in which consciousness is completely lost, like water soaking into blotting paper. Consciousness has nothing to do with purposes, and purposes have nothing to do with consciousness. Consciousness is another realm entirely, and purposes have no meaning here – they carry no weight.

 

‘Purposes’ are always smaller than we are, and so if we live for the sake of these purposes we become no bigger than they are. We become petty, in other words. We may say that the purposes in question are serving us of course, but this is simply not true! We serve our purposes, rather than vice versa. The boot is on the other foot.

 

This ought to be obvious – generally when we have a purpose or goal we say to ourselves (or think to ourselves) that we have to do such and such, or that we ought to do such and such. This is us being ruled by our purposes; if we could say ‘I can do such and such but I don’t have to’ then that would be entirely different but all too often we can’t say this (or even if we do say it, or do believe it) it isn’t  actually true. We just prefer to see things this way; we prefer not to uncover the true nature of our situation.

 

Often – very often in fact – when we succeed in obtaining a goal we feel good because the ‘pressure’ to obtain is gone and we feel great relief because of this. We have been a ‘successful slave’. The curious thing is that we actually see this pressure (which we can’t shake off until we’ve ‘done the thing that we’re supposed to do’) as being the very same thing as our own true motivation. We say that we are ‘motivated’! It might be ‘motivation,’ but it’s not ours however!

 

Whenever we feel that we are not doing well enough, that we not ‘making the grade’, that we have ‘failed’, that we have let ourselves (or someone else) down, then this is because of this external (or extrinsic) motivation. We are being ‘bullied from the inside’, to put it bluntly and this relentless bully, this heartless ‘inner critic’, isn’t our own true motivation. It has nothing to do with us whatsoever – it’s a ‘foreign introject’. Genuine motivation isn’t like this – genuine motivation isn’t a tyrant, isn’t a bully, isn’t relentlessly punishing if we don’t manage to do whatever it is that we are ‘supposed to have done’.

 

Our own true motivation never makes us feel bad in this way; it inspires us rather than forces us to engage in the task. It’s based on curiosity and playfulness rather than ‘crude non-negotiable need’. Everyone talks about ‘satisfying our needs’ but needs for machines, not human beings. ‘Pressure is for tires’, as they say. Needs are unfree – they are rules that we have to obey. ‘Needs’ are the stick that beats us up and down the garden path, and the rewarding feeling that we get when we meet them is due more to the relief from the pain of the need as anything else. The cessation of all-pervading, all-conditioning pain equals pleasure.

 

True motivation (which is intrinsic not extrinsic) isn’t all about ‘goals’ or ‘end results’. That’s ‘machine talk’! True motivation is about the process, not the end results. It isn’t about ‘end-gaming’, it isn’t about ‘ticking the box’ so that we can feel better and then move on to the next task. It’s not driven by goals, but by the genuine heartfelt interest we feel in engaging in whatever process it is that we are engaging in. We’re doing it simply ‘because we doing it’, not because we hope to get something out of it. We aren’t being ‘vultures’, we’re being human beings. Who wants to go around being a greedy old vulture, after all?

 

It remains true of course that in some respects we are machines, inasmuch as we are generally subject to certain hardwired rules or needs. That is in our biology, that’s part of being living organisms – if we are hungry then we have to eat, and there’s no getting away from this. There are also ‘psychological needs’ like ‘the need to be accepted by the people around us’ (or ‘the need to belong’) and these needs also have their place. We don’t need to let them rule our lives, or determine everything about us, but we can acknowledge that they are there, and give them due respect on this basis. We have a ‘machine-like’ aspect, but we are also tremendously more than that. We can be ‘machine’ and ‘not machine’ at the same time, and that is the whole art of living consciously!

 

The ‘Great Tendency’ is however (as we have said) for the Machine Self to take over and become the whole of who we are. The Machine Self is a jealous god and it tolerates no other influences – if it can, it will devour us whole every day. It does devour us whole every day! This is Rumi’s ‘lower self’ – the fearsome dragon which must never be woken up. If it gets woken up it will gobble us up in a flash and then extrinsic motivation will be the only type of motivation there is and everything will become about obtaining goals, following rules and ‘doing things for a purpose’. Life will become a mere mechanical routine. As a result of falling into the mechanical mode of being we become alienated from our own humanity and it’s not just ‘easy’ for this to happen – it’s what almost always does happen. It’s a foregone conclusion. This is what society will unfailingly do to us, if we just stand by and let it. We’re willing participants in the process. We ‘do it to ourselves’, we are complicit in the conspiracy without knowing that we are. That’s what society is, after all – it’s an unconscious thing; it’s ‘us doing all of this to ourselves’. We are all busy doing this thing to ourselves; busy turning ourselves into machines without any free (or unconditioned) consciousness, for all the world as if this were ‘a good thing’….

 

Being reduced to the level of our purposes and our thoughts is as we have said a demeaning kind of a thing – it strips us of what is best of us, leaving nothing behind but a mechanical husk. Our purposes (or thoughts) end up defining our whole lives, defining who we are, and yet they have nothing to do with us really – they are trivial things, superficial things, meaningless things. Our purposes would mean something if they served our true being, if they served who we really are, but they don’t. Who we really are has been lost in all this unceasing mechanical ‘busy-ness’, which always claims to be serving some so-called ‘higher purpose’, but which doesn’t. We’re caught up in an endless circular game that has no ‘purpose’ outside of itself. It is its own goal.

 

There is no ‘higher purpose’ to the mechanical life, to ‘life as a machine’ – there is only ‘busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness’, pointless busy-ness which leads on to nothing more than yet more pointless busy-ness. We’re kept so busy with all the purposeful doing that we never get the chance to see what we have lost through it, which is our true (non-mechanical) nature. We’ve have become alienated from this nature, and so would no longer recognize it even if we came across it. We think that our well-being is something to strive for mechanically, something that needs to be obtained or won but it isn’t. It’s there already, and can only be discovered when we STOP striving and grasping all the time…

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem of ‘Sitting with Pain’

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Mind-Produced Sense of Self

If we aren’t this brittle, insecure sense of self then who are we? This brittle and permanently insecure sense may not be much, but it all we’ve got, after all! It definitely isn’t all that much fun being tied as we are to the mind-produced sense of the self but there doesn’t seem to be any choice about it – the ‘sense of self’ that we’re talking about goes hand-in-hand with the sense that we ‘can’t do anything about it’. That’s what it means to be a self after all – it means that ‘this is who we are’. There’s no freedom involved in this, there’s no freedom involved in this business of ‘me being who I am’. How could there possibly be any freedom in it?

 

And yet there is. We only feel ourselves to be who the mind says we are because we believe in what we’re told, because we believe in the narrow little viewpoint that we have been given by the thinking mind, which is the viewpoint of the conditioned self. We’ve been shoe-horned into this tiny little slot, this tiny little compartment and because we’ve had all our perspective surgically removed by the procedure we think that this is our only possibility. You could sit me down and talk to me about it for a year and I’d still think that it was my only possibility – that’s how powerful the illusion is. As far as I’m concerned there isn’t the slightest trace or hint of a question about it (about the fact that I am this brittle, insecure sense of self) and so all I can do is ‘just get on with it’. All I can do is try to make a go of it and attempt – to the very best of my ability – to focus on the good times and ignore the bad ones…

 

The crucial point is however that this isn’t who we are – it never was and it never could be, no matter what delusions we might hold to the contrary. As soon as we have the awareness, no matter how faint, that this brittle insecure sense of self isn’t who we are then this introduces a completely new ‘note’ into the picture – the note of freedom! It’s not that having this crucial awareness necessitates us ‘doing anything about it’, just knowing it changes everything forever. We don’t need to do anything. The awareness itself is the freedom. We can’t actually be aware of anything without this freedom because without being free from the delusion that we are this brittle, insecure mind-produced sense of self what we think is ‘awareness’ isn’t anything of the sort – it is awareness that has been conditioned by our narrow viewpoint and conditioned awareness is enslaved awareness, awareness that isn’t free to see reality. We can’t be aware of the world as it is in itself when we see everything from the point of view of the mind-produced sense of self because all we see is ‘the world as it appears to this unreal viewpoint’. We haven’t the freedom to see anything else – all we can ever do is ‘react in accordance with what the conceptual mind shows us’. All we can ever do is react. Reacting is not the same as ‘being aware’ but reacting is the only possibility that the MPSOS ever has open to it. It can react this way or it can react that way but ‘not-reacting’ is simply not an option. It can choose X or it can choose Y but it cannot forebear from choosing…

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we are in the ‘identified’ state everything we do has to be done on purpose. Everything we do when we are ‘identified with the idea that we have of ourselves’ is necessarily purposeful. For this reason we can refer to the MPSOS as the purposeful self. The purposeful self always operates in relation to ‘a plan’ – this plan (or model) may be highly sophisticated or it may be as rudimentary as they come but there has to be a plan of some sort. There has to be some sort of ‘fixed basis’ (or framework) for what we do and what we think. With regard to our ‘plan’ (i.e. our ‘idea about what we want and what we don’t want’) outcomes are of course always going to be seen as being either ‘right’ or being ‘wrong’. All situations or eventualities are always going to be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ therefore and the point here is that when something is automatically seen as either good or bad, and reacted to accordingly, then there is no freedom in this situation. If an outcome is ‘good’ then we react to secure it, and if it is ‘bad’ then we react to avoid it or push it away. ‘Reacting’ simply means ‘acting without freedom’ in other words. We are acting in a way that has been predetermined by our compartmentalized way of seeing and thinking about the world, which we are not free to question. We the slaves of the categories that we are obliged to operate within, without even appreciating that they are only mind-created ‘categories’.

 

The purposeful self always acts without freedom precisely because it is the ‘purposeful self’ therefore; it has no freedom precisely because it always has to be acting for one purpose or another, and these purposes are simply ‘mental categories’. We could also (and equivalently) say that the purposeful self always acts without freedom because it is always operating from within its dualistic view of the world. ‘Dualistic’ simply means that we see the world as being essentially divided between two polar extremes such as ‘right versus wrong’ or ‘good versus bad’ – either a thing is one way or the other, either you are a friend or an enemy, either you are for us or against us, either you’re a true believer or you’re a godless heathen, etc. Actually, there is always another possibility and that is that we really don’t care in the slightest one way or the other but the possibility ‘sublimely uncommitted to either pole’ is not acknowledged to have any existence within the dualistic framework. Everything has to be ‘polarized’ because that’s the narrow way in which we understand things. Just as long as we see the world through our thoughts we are always going to be looking at things from a dualistic viewpoint. Thought is always dual. Thought is always dual because thought is based on categories and categories are based on boundaries. A boundary is ‘duality in a nutshell’ because it is nothing other than ‘right versus wrong’, ‘good versus bad’, ‘in versus out’. It’s a line that has been drawn, a line that marks out what is included on the one side, and what is excluded on the other…

 

So the upshot of all this is that the purposeful self has no freedom even though it thinks that it does. The purposeful self doesn’t actually understand freedom – it understands freedom in an upside-down way and this is the only way it can understand it. For the PS, freedom is when it can realize its goals, or ‘successfully enact its purposes’. What it doesn’t (and can’t) see is that these purposes were never ‘free’ in the first place – they are merely categories that have been foisted upon us. We can’t see that we aren’t the PS until we have the freedom to see this, and yet the precise point that we are making here is that it doesn’t have any freedom. That’s how the purposeful self gets to be the purposeful self – by not having any freedom in it! It’s essentially a game that we play and – as James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games – we can only play a game when we give up our freedom, and put ourselves in the situation where we can’t see that the game is only a game. What this means is that when we do see that we aren’t this brittle, insecure mind-produced sense of self then this is because freedom has come back into the picture. We can’t say that ‘freedom comes back into the picture when we see that we’re not the MPSOS’ because we can’t see that until we have freedom! There isn’t a causal relationship going on here. Without freedom, as we have said, we can’t have genuine awareness of anything. Freedom doesn’t come about as a result of anything we do therefore – freedom isn’t one of the purposes of the purposeful self! Freedom isn’t a category – it’s when we don’t have to conform or submit to any mind-produced categories, and this state of affairs isn’t itself a category!

 

Freedom doesn’t happen as an outcome or result of any causal relationship and causal relationships are all the purposeful self understands. We can’t understand how the process happens but that doesn’t actually matter – the important thing is that it does happen, not how. Freedom does come back into the picture; somehow consciousness separates itself from the personality construct and until this separation takes place we will have no genuine awareness of anything – we will only have this thing that we have called ‘conditioned awareness’, which is not awareness at all but its inverted analogue. We can’t be aware of what’s going on because we’re seeing everything through the ‘coercive lens’ of duality, which represents everything to us as in terms of polar opposites. We’re trapped in the dualistic illusion and we have no way of knowing that it is an illusion – we don’t suspect that anything odd or peculiar is going on at all, despite the fact that we’re living in a world that has no freedom in it at all.

 

Once we have had the first insight into what genuine freedom is (and have seen that freedom is simply not possible for the conditioned or purposeful self) then the illusion is broken. Things can never be the same after this, even though the power of the dualistic trap is such that it will keep on dragging us back into it. Moments of freedom will come and go and as we become more acquainted with freedom they will come more frequently. Our ‘connection’ to the awareness that we are not this brittle, insecure mind-produced self may be unreliable but – as we have said – once we have had it then this changes everything. The two situations are fundamentally different – in the first case, which is the situation where we have never had any awareness at all that there is a radically different way of looking at things then the appreciation that there is this thing called ‘unconditional freedom’ (which is so is so very different to anything we have ever known before) simply does not exist. You couldn’t explain it to me, no matter how you tried. We only ever see freedom in completely false terms – we only ever see it in terms of us being able to act out our attachments, in terms of us being able to do what we are being compelled to do, whilst not seeing that we are being compelled. How very far from genuine freedom this is, and yet it is nevertheless the ‘closest’ thing to freedom that we will ever get.

 

In the second situation no matter what happens we know on some level or other that what we want to do (or want to see happen) we only want because we are being compelled or coerced to want, and this turns everything around completely – even if we still can’t help being coerced! We don’t believe in this coercion in the same way that we used to and so it no longer has the absolute power over us that it used to. We know (on some level or other) that it doesn’t really matter if we don’t get what we want to get – we have a degree of equanimity, therefore. We no longer take the game quite as seriously as we used to, in other words, and when a game is no longer taken seriously this dramatically changes the nature of the game. It’s a game changer! As we were saying earlier, when we no longer take a game absolutely seriously then it no longer works as a game. The bubble has burst – freedom has come back into the picture. This addition of this one little ingredient is enough to radically change our view of everything, including ourselves…

 

Having had a glimpse of what freedom really is allows us to appreciate just how terrible it is to have no freedom, and to have to live life on this basis. How is such a thing even possible, we might wonder? How is it possible to live life on a totally false basis, where we think that we are this brittle, fundamentally insecure, mind-produced sense of self, this sense of self that comes complete with its own inbuilt dualistic distortion which compels us to see the world (and ourselves) in a way that isn’t true, in a way that we get helplessly trapped in? How can we live in this world where all freedom has been taken away, and still manage to ‘make a go of it’? Nothing we see is true, nothing we think is true, and nothing we do is ‘true’ either since we are being compelled to do it! The things that matter to us very much (our attachments) don’t matter to us at all really – they only matter to the false, brittle, insecure sense of self which is who we think we are. Why these things matter so much to the false sense of self is very easy to explain – the MPSOS is insecure not just because it isn’t who we are but also because it isn’t who anyone is and because it absolutely has to compensate for this underlying it greatly values whatever will validate its position, just as it demonizes anything that devalidates (or threatens to show up) the lie that it takes so seriously. When we take up a false or arbitrary position without knowing that we are then the world immediately gets divided into those things that validate us and those things that do the opposite of validating us – the world is divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in other words. We think that good and bad have an objective existence out there in the world around us but really they are only functions of our deluded viewpoint!

 

The mind-produced sense of self is insecure for a very good reason – there’s no way that it couldn’t be insecure – and out of this irreducible insecurity arise all its attachments, both positive and negative. All of its activities exist for the sake of compensating for its unacknowledged insecurity – nothing else really interests it! Because of its insecurity the MPSOS has to be forever trying as hard as it can to acquire validations for itself and avoid de-validations. These are our attachments – these are the things that matter so much to the false sense of self but don’t matter at all in the bigger scheme of things since who really cares if an illusory sense of self gets validated or not? Nothing the FSOS does (as a result of trying to enact its purposes) makes sense really. Everything it does is all for the purpose of proving that what isn’t true actually is true, and where’s the sense in this? The FSOS is forever trying to assert itself, and ‘itself’ isn’t true! We don’t see any of this when we are identified with the false sense of self however – it has us completely hoodwinked and we never even come close to seeing through it. We’ve fallen under its spell completely. We don’t know what the mind-produced sense of self is really up to with all its activities and what’s more, we are extremely unlikely to ever find out. It could be said that this is the best-kept secret of all – there never was a better kept secret than this! The profoundest ignorance there ever was is reserved for this matter; the darkest of all shadows falls over this secret business of ‘what the false sense of self’ is really up to with all its manoeuvrings. It ‘puts us off the scent every single time’…

 

We are ‘put off the scent’ by having attachments, either positive or negative, dangled in front of us. Either there’s something there that we very much want to acquire, or there’s something there that we very much want to get away from. Either way, as soon as we start reacting we unwittingly create a smokescreen that stops us seeing through to what our true motivation is, which is to avoid seeing the truth about our true nature. Because we put so much effort into avoiding seeing our true nature we never do, and so we’re stuck full-time with this brittle, insecure sense of self. That’s what we’re fighting to protect, after all! We’re fighting full-time to protect an illusion and ‘protecting an illusion’ means precisely that we never allow ourselves to seeing that it is one. The irony is therefore that we are fighting against ourselves the whole time – we are in a very real sense ‘our own worst enemy’ because we are insisting on a false form of freedom that is actually the antithesis of the genuine article. We’re cherishing this brittle, insecure sense of self and so – by doing this – we are cherishing what can never be any more than a life of frustration and misery. We will know occasional moments of true happiness and peace and joy it is true – but what we completely fail to understand is that these moments are the moments that happen when we momentarily (and quite accidentally) forget to cherish the mind-produced sense of self…

 

 

 

 

We Live In A ‘Content-Free’ World

What happens when we create worlds for ourselves that are existentially ‘non-challenging’ is that we promptly fall asleep on our feet. This isn’t just something that is probable (or even very likely) – it is an inevitability. It happens every time…

 

An ‘existentially unchallenging environment’ is one in which everything is defined for us and if everything is defined, if everything is ‘in its right conceptual box’, then where’s the existential challenge in this? Everything just becomes an exercise in accounting.  Because there’s no challenge in the moment there is no ‘being present’; because there is no more than ‘what superficially appears to be there’ there is similarly no more to us than ‘what superficially appears to be there’. We are (pretty much) the products of our environment – when we adapt to an environment that is only skin-deep then the same becomes true of us, when the only world we know is a world that has no actual content then neither do we. This is because – in the absence of an effort in the direction of self-inquiry – we can’t help using our environment to define ourselves.

 

This tends to be a point we don’t immediately get – we’re only too used to realities that have already been defined for us, predigested realities, realities in which there is never any more than ‘what superficially appears to be’. Because of this it is hard for us to see that there is anything peculiar or untoward about this situation. The reason the ‘world of appearances’ is a peculiar one is because reality itself is not merely ‘an appearance’ and so we’re diverting from what is real without knowing it. Appearances are what we see and relate to but that is strictly our own affair – what we see or understand as ‘being real’ has nothing to do with reality, nothing to do the actual nature of reality itself. Appearances have a particular form to them – they have hard edges which we can focus on to the exclusion of anything else. We ourselves create these ‘edges’ and having created them we proceed to treat them as if they are the only important thing in life – we treat the edges that we’ve made as if they themselves are reality. The ‘edges’ that we’re talking about here come out of our thinking, needless to say, because thinking is all about edges, or ‘cut-off points for our attention’.

 

When ‘an edge’ equals reality then everything straightaway becomes flat. The world becomes flat – there’s no depth involved. Depth doesn’t come into it – the idea of ‘depth itself is lost. Where the edge is then that’s what’s real and behind that sharply uncompromising edge there’s nothing, nothing has been defined, nothing has been presented and that means that as far as we are concerned there is nothing. It’s as if we have turned up the focus on our focussing mechanism to make the image we’re seeing as sharp as possible; it’s only the mechanism (i.e. the conceptual mind) that does this however – this two-dimensional sharpness doesn’t exist in the world itself. The world itself has nothing in common with the image that is presented on a flat plane, as if nothing else existed but that flat plane.

 

If we take the time to relate to the world without the help of this focussing mechanism (and hitting a flat-plane representation with nothing behind it) then we will encounter this unfocussed phenomenon that we have called depth. Depth means that ‘the more you look, the more you see’ (as Robert M Pirsig says); reality reveals itself when we give it the space to do so, when we don’t hurry it along by ‘pressing for a conclusion’. If we press for a conclusion then we get the conclusion that we have pressed for and that’s all we get. We never go beyond it, we never get surprised. When we don’t ‘take charge of the process’ in this way then we keep on being surprised, we keep on seeing more than we thought there was to see. This quality of there being more in the situation than we initially perceived there to be constitutes what we have called ‘depth’ and depth is therefore the existential challenge that we have said designed environments don’t contain.

 

The essentially open nature of reality constitutes an existential challenge for us because of the demand that is being made on us to be present with a reality that has no precedence and which on this account we are not prepared to deal with. All we have is ourselves and this is a challenge because we not used to dealing with reality ourselves – we’re used to dealing with it with the help of external authority of the thinking mind, which is a collection of gimmicks and procedures and formulae that have been passed down to us, not ‘all on own’, which is what is required of us now. Life is making a demand and that demand is that we attend to what is happened right now, which has never happened before, rather than assuming that we know what is going on and moving on to the next (known) thing, which is what we usually do. The demand to attend to an unknown present moment is also the demand to attend to (or question) ourselves, and this is the one thing we never want to do. This then is the boon that the constructed environment bestows upon us – the constructed (or ‘designed’) environment bestows upon us the boon of not ever having to look at ourselves. Because the world we are relating to is made up of sharply-defined surfaces with nothing behind them so too have we become a ‘sharply-defined surface with nothing behind it’ and because there’s ‘nothing behind it’ we don’t need to examine ourselves. There’s no point because we already know everything there is to know. We are thereby protected from what Chogyam Trungpa calls ‘a direct perception of what is‘.

 

The question here is then, why is the challenge of having to examine who or what we are so very frightening to us? Why are we so very keen to run away from it? One way of explaining our ‘reluctance to examine things too deeply’ is to say that we simply don’t want the apple-cart to get upset. Seeing that the world is other than the way that we took it to be means that we have to go right back to the drawing board and that means a lot of hard work. It also means seeing that we have wasted a huge amount of time and effort on the wrong idea of who we are and what life is all about, and seeing this is in itself hard work. That is actually the hardest work of all! Everything we thought was wrong. Having to let go of everything we thought we knew and go back to the drawing board is the hardest work there is and so it is hardly surprising that we would want to run away from something like this. Faced with the two possibilities of either carrying on in our denial and ‘putting off the moment of truth’ for as long as we possibly can, and deciding to turn around from the road of denial and go back to start again it is clear what the easiest (and therefore most attractive) option is going to be…

 

We had this comfortable little illusion going for us there – we thought we had everything sussed out, we thought we had a handle on everything, when all of a sudden the rug gets pulled out from under us and we discover that we were only fooling ourselves. We’d been asleep, in other words, so now is the time to wake up. This is still puzzling however because when we wake up there’s a whole interesting world there to find out about and this has got to be the most exciting challenge ever! Why then do we react so badly to this challenge? Admittedly – as we have just said – we have to overcome our initial resistance to seeing the truth, but is this enough by itself to explain our tremendous antipathy to encountering ‘reality as it actually is’? The world that is made up of defined surfaces isn’t that great a world, after all; far from being in any way ‘great’ it is completely sterile, completely lacking in anything that can ever genuinely surprise us, and so why are we so very keen to stay in it, not knowing of any other world and not wanting to know either? Why do we refuse the richness of the non-conceptual mind in favour of the generic ten-a-penny two-dimensional pseudo-world that the thinking mind constructs for us? What the hell – we might well ask – is going on here?

 

What we’re really asking here is “Why is psychological work so very inimical to us?” Why is the existential challenge that is inherent in life itself something that we are just not prepared – under any circumstances – to countenance? The answer to this question is very simple – when we have identified with the mind-created self, which is the self that is constructed out of edges, out of hard-and-fast boundaries, then psychological work is a complete impossibility for us. There couldn’t be a more complete impossibility than this. Psychological work (or ‘conscious work’) means going beyond our boundaries and the mind-created self can’t do this – it can’t do this because it IS its boundaries. That’s the whole point of the defined self – that it can’t be what it isn’t defined as being! The defined self is only what it is defined as being and so it can’t ever go beyond these limitations (no matter how much pain and frustration they might entail) – going beyond its own boundaries is the same for the defined self as dying. To embrace the new is to let go of the old and the bottom line is that we just don’t want to do this – our resistance (or ‘inflexibility’) here is absolute…

 

As soon as we being to attend to the world around us we are challenged. Our idea of ourselves is challenged and that idea is sacred to us. That idea IS us. Our orientation towards life is totally based on this idea of ourselves – our interest is totally in the direction of ‘acting on behalf of this idea’, not ‘questioning it’. That would be going in the other direction entirely! There are two entirely distinct modes here – ‘doing mode’ and ‘reflecting mode’ – and if we’re in the first mode, the purposeful mode, then questioning ourselves doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s giving up or sacrificing the very thing that’s most important to us (the only thing that’s important to us!) because it’s only through unreflective purposeful doing that we can perpetuate the illusion of the controller, the illusion of the doer, the illusion of the purposeful self. The purposeful self only gets to exist because of the way it always defines itself by consistently relating itself / orientating itself to the sharply defined surfaces of the constructed world, as we said earlier.

 

‘Being asleep’ means that we have identified ourselves with a whole bunch of mental constructs. We can’t even differentiate between what we have called ‘the constructed world’ and the idea of who we are (i.e. who it is that inhabits this world) because each requires the other in order to carry on existing. The purposeful self and the defined world within which it lives are mutually conditioning phenomena – they are the two sides of the same coin. Inasmuch as I experience myself to be this ‘mind-created me’ I am going to have no interest in what lies beyond the sharply-defined representations of the world that the mind has created for me; not only am I ‘not interested’ in the reality that lies beyond my concepts, I am mortally afraid of it. I am never going to admit its existence, no matter how much pressure I am under. Admitting the existence of a reality that lies beyond my concepts is the same thing as admitting my own non-existence!

 

Our relationship with unconditioned reality – when we are identified with the defined self – is the relationship of fear. ‘Fear’ is relating by not relating – we don’t know what we are relating to because we aren’t relating to it, but at the same time we can’t help knowing about it for the very same reason, because we are so deliberately not relating to it. To consistently turn away from something is to orientate oneself towards it in a negative or reverse fashion so when we are afraid of the unconditioned reality (which is the world beyond our constructs) then our whole lives are based on fear, even though we can’t see it. Fear is what lies behind our rigid posture in life, our constant tedious tropism towards defined goals or definite outcomes, but at the same time we never look at why we are the way that we are. We have no curiosity towards ourselves; fear does not examine itself, after all – if I am afraid I do not want to see deeply into the nature of this fear! We don’t see what we are afraid of for what it is – we don’t see unconditioned reality for what it is, we simply know that we need to avoid it at all costs… If we saw that what we were so afraid of is actually reality itself, then this would tend to give the game away big time, and that’s what we don’t want!

 

It is because we don’t want the game to be ‘given away’ that we are so very fond of conditioned environments, environments that we have created for ourselves out of the thinking mind, environments which are seamlessly defined so that there is no radical mystery in them anywhere. To gaze upon a radical mystery would be to gaze upon the beginning of our own non-existence – the self-which-is-a-construct-of thought cannot afford to have any dealings with the Great Mystery which is reality! The constructed self is most emphatically not a philosophically-minded type of an entity – it is – as we have been saying – purely practical in its approach. It just wants to know what the goal is, and how it is to obtain it, and then it is happy. It is like a wind-up clockwork toy in this regard – we just have to prime it and then we can let it off to ‘do its thing’. Being wound-up clockwork toys, all we want is to ‘do our thing’! We don’t want to know why we are to do it – we just want to ‘get on with the job’, we just want for there to be nothing obstructing us in the fulfilment of our mechanical task. If something stands in the way of us going through our predefined routine then this is immensely irritating, immensely frustrating to us. There’s nothing worse!

 

‘Going through our predetermined routines’ equals being asleep and when we’re asleep we want to carry on being asleep. We don’t want to be disturbed. Beware waking up sleeping people, as Anthony De Mello says! They won’t like it, they won’t be happy with you. When we’re asleep we just want to whizz around and around and around on the tracks that have been laid down for us. We don’t want anything to get in our way. We just want to play our games. It is for this reason that we have created a world for ourselves that is made up entirely of defined surfaces, which is a world that has had all the actual content taken out of it…

 

 

Art: Sean Norvet