The Hell of Pure Purposefulness

Ours is a purposeful culture, and this inevitably brings a whole raft of  neurotic mental health ‘conditions’ in its wake, which we then attempt to solve in a purposeful manner! The irony is lost on us, however.

 

Purposefulness is clearly a healthy part of life; no one is suggesting that we should abandon all purposeful behaviour, but – on the other hand – when purposefulness eclipses all else it becomes an evil, it becomes ‘a mental health hazard’. We only have to reflect on this for a moment to see that it is true – imagine what life would go like if we had to be purposeful all the time. What a nightmare this would be! The whole of life becomes one big grinding chore that never ends… This is not life but a cruel parody of it; the ultimate joke is being played on us and it is not a nice joke…

 

Alan Watts explains this point in terms of dancing, and the question of ‘who leads the dance’. If one partner leads all the time then the dance would be a very sterile affair – it would hardly deserve being called ‘a dance’ at all! It would be more like ‘having a conversation with oneself’. If both partners lead the dance to an equal extent however then the interaction immediately becomes creative, it immediately becomes a genuine dialogue.

 

In the same way, when purposefulness is overvalued in the culture then there is no ‘dance’ going on, merely the humourless and obsessive pursuit of goals. Life itself becomes devalued in this case because life (or ‘nature’) just become something that is supposed to ‘submit to our will’. What we forget, in this case, is that it isn’t ‘all about us’, that life isn’t just a matter of us ‘exerting our will’, or ‘conceiving a goal and then doing our level best to achieve it’.

 

When everything becomes about goals, and overcoming whatever obstacles might be standing in the way of us achieving them, then life becomes frighteningly sterile. ‘It takes two to tango’, as the saying has it, and control is always a one-way street – it’s a ‘top-down’ kind of a thing. When purposefulness is overvalued then – obviously – the only thing that matters to us is control, and how effective we are at it, and this is the recipe for neurotic suffering, not mental health.

 

When I am focussed entirely on ‘the attaining of my goals’ then I am stuck in ‘a relationship with myself’ – there’s nothing there else left to have a relationship with, after all! When life becomes all about purposefulness then there is just ‘me having a relationship with myself’ and the relationship between ‘me and myself’ isn’t actually a relationship at all (just as a dance between me and a purely passive partner isn’t really a dance at all). The most important element – the relationship with ‘the other’ – has been lost. There no longer is an ‘other’ in this case, and this is always the case with control. We only have to think about abusive relationships.

 

‘Overvaluing purposefulness’ is a bad road to go down, therefore. It’s a bad road to go down because we lose our relationship with reality and all that’s left is me playing a game with myself; all that’s left is me ‘relating’ to my own projections. One projection is called ‘winning’ and I think that this is a good thing, the other projection is called ‘losing’ and that is a bad thing. Actually, both are the very same thing – both are only my projections and my attempt to obtain the positive projection is every bit as sterile (or futile) is my attempt to avoid the negative projection.

 

When I think that life (or nature) is merely some kind of passive thing to be moulded as I see fit, to be controlled or manipulated as it suits me, then I am heading for disaster. On the ‘macro-‘ scale (which is to say, on the scale of the environment within which we live) then we all know what this disaster looks like. At this particular point in time at the beginning of the twenty-first century we are all becoming very aware indeed of the negative consequences of having a ‘one-way relationship’ with nature, a relationship in which we get to ‘call all the shots’.

 

The same disaster for faces us on the ‘micro-’ (or individual) scale of things too. When I treat the dance between me and life as if it’s only what I want that matters, then sooner or later I back myself into a sterile corner. My life becomes meaningless and pointless. If I keep on ‘leading’ and never show any sensitivity to what life, or my own ‘unconscious’, wants (if we may put it like this), then life will refuse to help me when I need it to. My own spontaneous nature will refuse to step in and help me when I finally realise that I need it to because ‘I have run out of answers’. It is at this point in time that I will truly become acquainted with this spiritual wasteland that we call ‘neurotic suffering’.

 

The assumption that we are making is that if we get to be ‘totally in control’, if we get to be ‘calling all the shots’, if we get to be ‘securing the outcomes we want’, etc, then this will of course be a very good thing. That’s our assumption but it couldn’t further from the truth, for the reasons that we have just given. What’s missing from this picture (as we have said) is a relationship with anything outside of us – in order for there to be a relationship there has to be something ‘coming back the other way’, so to speak, and that’s precisely what’s not happening…

 

Something else is needed and that ‘something else’ might be called ‘listening’, or ‘sensitivity,’ or ‘intuitiveness’, or something like that, but the thing about this is that we can’t do ‘listening’ or ‘sensitivity’ or ‘intuitiveness’ on purpose! If we did do it on purpose then that would mean that we knew in advance what we were listening or intuiting for, or what we were being sensitive to, and the whole point is that we don’t know. We can’t know and that is precisely the point. What we’re talking about is an entirely different ‘modality of being in the world’ therefore, and it doesn’t happen to be a modality we know very much (if anything) about in this rational-purposeful culture of ours. That is after all the very element that we’ve forgotten about in our great, all-consuming hurry to be ‘in control’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rational Disconnect

Self-affirmations are part of every ‘mental health tool-kit’ it seems, and yet there is nothing even remotely ‘mentally healthy’ about dutifully repeating self-affirmations. It is actually odd that we should accept this supposedly helpful practice so very uncritically – where the hell does this idea come from anyway, and where is the proof that it actually works?

 

For some reason the whole area of mental health seems to be one in which we take to heart advice with practically zero critical appraisal. We’re very gullible when it comes to the question of what will or will not help our mental health, which – when we come to think of it – probably isn’t so surprising. We’re very keen to be helped after all, and we’re not so keen to learn about potential ‘flies in the healing ointment’. There are a number of ways in which we could try to show why self affirmation isn’t a legitimate means of helping ourselves. One way is to point out that every affirmation we could ever possibly make is merely ‘a thought’ and no thought is ever true. Thoughts are simply thoughts – they are abstract mental evaluations or statements that we make about the world, and as such they ought not to be confused with the actual reality that they are referring to. It is the fact that we are always confusing our abstract mental labels and evaluation with the reality which they are referring to that causes our neurotic suffering in the first place, so ‘more of the same’ is hardly going to help matters! Yet more thinking isn’t really going to be the helpful thing because it was thinking that got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. The head can’t be used to cure the head, so to speak…

 

Although we are unlikely to stop and see things this way, when we engage in self-affirmations all we are doing is ‘telling ourselves what we would like to believe’ and this straightway makes the whole endeavour very suspect! Isn’t that what we do all the time anyway, in one way or another? Aren’t we always trying to validate ourselves with our thinking and our talking? The only time we’re not doing this – generally speaking – is when we are criticising ourselves or blaming ourselves or ‘putting ourselves down’ with our thinking and this too is a form of ‘validation’, even though we certainly don’t see it as such. Self-criticism and ‘self-blaming’ is negative validation and negative validation is still validation, despite the fact that it makes us feel bad instead of good.

 

We’re not very good at seeing this in our Western culture – we’re not very good at seeing that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are the two sides of the very same coin. That’s what the familiar yin-yang symbol is showing us – we are all familiar with this symbol but unfortunately we’re not so familiar with the philosophy behind it. The message of the yin-yang symbol is that if we push positive far enough then it will become negative! ‘At the moment of victory defeat is born’, as the ancient Chinese saying has it. We think we’re pretty smart in the West but our thinking isn’t subtle enough to appreciate this point, which is ‘the principle of the identity of the opposites’; very evidently, we simply ‘don’t get it’, no matter how sophisticated we might imagine ourselves to be. We insist on treating the opposites as if they weren’t mutually dependent, as if we can have ‘more of the one without by the same token having more of the other’.

 

If I keep telling myself (and others) that ‘everything is going to be okay’ this is a positive message for sure but – alt the same time – it straightaway spells a negative message on the unstated level. If I truly believe that everything is going to be okay then I wouldn’t have to keep on saying it, I wouldn’t have to be so extremely insistent on it! “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” as the well-known line from Hamlet goes. If I keep on loudly protesting my innocence this unfailingly makes me sound guilty. Or – to give another example – if I keep on assuring you that you can trust me, then this very clearly sends the opposite message to the one I want to get across. No one goes around telling people that they are trustworthy unless they aren’t!

 

Positive affirmations are exactly the same as this, therefore – we’re ‘protesting too much’ and this over-egging of the pudding ought to make us suspicious. It actually does make us suspicious on an unconscious level, and so we are then obliged to do our best to cover up our doubts by being louder and more insistent than ever with our positive self-affirmations! This is the trouble with all so-called ‘positive thinking’, it actually has the very opposite effect to the one we want  and so what happens then is that we actually get caught up in a struggle that won’t ever end. We have unwittingly created a counter-current (or counterforce) to the one we are actively trying to promote and so we then become locked into the very grim business of ‘fighting against the negative’. We get locked into ‘trying to control what we never should have started trying to control’. We get caught up in a fight that we can’t win and what’s so ‘mentally healthy’ about this?

 

‘Promoting the positive’ is the very same thing as ‘fighting against the negative’ – it’s just odd that we find it so extremely hard to gain this insight. Our whole culture is working against us however, so perhaps it isn’t so odd after all that we can’t see a way out of the neurotic mess that we have created. ‘Promoting the positive’ or ‘affirming the positive’ is a recipe for suffering plain and simple. It’s a guaranteed recipe for suffering – it works every time! If we wanted more suffering then we’d be delighted – we’d be very pleased with the results of our efforts, but the whole point is that we don’t like suffering, needless to say! That’s actually what we’re trying to escape from in the first place, of course.

 

What we need to understand is that our overly-rational culture is not good for our mental health, and it certainly isn’t qualified to be telling us how to go about obtaining it for ourselves! Mental health is not some kind of defined goal to be reached via our logical thinking, by our technology, by our rational strategies. To go about things this way is always to incur suffering. We try to be clever about it but that isn’t that just isn’t going to work. We’re trying to obtain good mental health by manipulating, by controlling, by ‘fixing’, and that’s like ‘trying to put out a fire with gasoline’. We can’t successfully use the thinking mind as a tool when it comes to mental health because thinking is always about ‘chasing the positive and resisting the negative’ and this kind of thing (which in the East is called attachment) is the very root of our problem not the cure. Attachment can’t cure attachment. Control (which arises from ‘like versus dislike’) is the cause of our suffering and when we engage in positive affirmations we are trying to control – it’s as simple as that.

 

Of course we’re trying to control – we’re trying to obtain a particular outcome (the ‘positive’ one) and that’s control! So if attempted control doesn’t work – but only in fact makes matters worse) then what’s the alternative? What else can we do? It turns out that there is only one alternative to control and that is to be ‘interested in things as they actually are’ (rather than being obsessively fixated on positive outcomes’). This doesn’t take cleverness or techniques, but simply sincerity, or as we might also say, honest and courageous self-observation. It’s the truth sets us free, not cleverness, not our ability to manipulate the situation. Instead of self-affirmation (which as we have said is an attempt to manipulate) we practice something much gentler and much more powerful. We give ourselves the permission to be the way that we actually are, which is not a form of manipulation, which is not a form of cleverness.

 

This ‘permission-giving’ isn’t a ‘rational–purposeful’ kind of thing of course – it’s ‘a letting go’ not a ‘holding on’, not a ‘clinging to some mental technique’ type of thing. If it was merely a rational-purposeful thing then we could turn it into a strategy, and that would make it into just another form of self-affirmation. We would just be repeating another ‘meaningless mantra’ to ourselves in the case – we would be changing the formula slightly but that’s all that will have changed. What we’re talking about is the type of thing that comes from the heart and not the head and the problem here is that we’ve pretty much forgotten about our hearts (due no doubt to the relentless pressure to be clever and competitive that we’re all under). We got a bit of a ‘disconnect’ going on in the heart department unfortunately and we can’t really gloss over that fact, no matter how much we’d like to. This is just something that we have to face – the problem isn’t in our DNA or in some ‘error’ in our own personal psychology, it’s in this bizarre disconnected and competitive way of life that we have invented for ourselves…

 

Our Western culture is a heartless one due to our bizarre and unpleasant emphasis on consumerism and it is also a soulless one (as Jung has said) because of the way we insist on putting rationality on a pedestal. Once we see this however then we are half-way there because we won’t be looking for answers any more from either the disconnected rational mind or our cold-hearted, insincere techno-consumerist society. All we have to do is honestly reconnect with ourselves, which means not trying to control or manage ourselves the whole time in the way that the so-called ‘experts’ say that we should…

 

 

Art – Ben Frost – Store In A Dark Place (Mickey on Prozac), 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Treadmill of Runaway Thinking

When we think we do so because we’re trying to change things from being ‘the way that they are’ to some other way, some other way that corresponds to an idealized view or concept of reality that we have. Or we could just say that we’re trying to change things from being ‘the way that they are’ to ‘the way that we’d like them to be’.

 

Sometimes this is useful – sometimes it’s actually vitally important, in fact – but at other times it’s not at all useful, very often it could even be the opposite of useful. Most of the time our thinking is no more than what we might call ‘a habit’ or ‘an automatic reflex’. This ‘automatic reflex’ dominates our lives – we actually think all day long, from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go back to sleep again. We’re so used to this automatic thinking that we barely register it. To be thinking all the time is the normal way to be – if we weren’t thinking then this would come as rather a big shock to us!

 

Thinking can be very helpful at times, when it is specifically and practically needed, but when we think all the time, by pure force of habit, then it is not. It’s not helpful to think all the time (whether we want to or not) because doing this stops us living in the real world. Our thoughts don’t take us into reality after all, they take us deeper and deeper into what we might call ‘the world of our thoughts’. Thinking all the time is a kind of one-way ticket into a ‘purely conceptual reality’ and to be caught up in a full-time basis in a purely conceptual reality is not a healthy thing!

 

If thinking is all about trying to change things (as it of course is) then clearly it can never connect us with the way that things actually are. This is the one thing thought can never do!  Thinking occurs in response to an ‘irritation’, we might say, and this irritation is ‘the way things actually are’. We’re ‘irritated’ by the world being the way that it is and we’re responding to the irritation with our thinking – our thinking is our attempt to soothe things, to ‘smooth things over’, to make things be a bit more comfortable (or ‘acceptable’) to us. If ‘the world being the way that it actually is’ is the irritation, then our constant thinking is the ointment or balm that we keep applying…

 

The world ‘being the way that it is’ is the itch and we are constantly scratching this itch, in other words. Oddly enough, therefore, we’re ‘scratching away’ all day long and we’ve grown so used to our constant habitual scratching that we no longer notice it. If we were totally at peace with ‘things being the way that they are’ then – needless to say – there would be no need to think. If everything was ‘perfect just as it is’ then we’d leave it the way that it is, obviously! We might think “Oh, this is perfect!” it is true, but then to think this would take us away from the perfection, not towards it. The thought actually detracts from the perfection rather than adding to it; it detracts because it takes us away from reality into the world of our thoughts, into the world of our ‘running commentary’! Who needs a commentary when the commentary detracts from what is being commentated on?

 

We might of course agree with this but then point out that everyday very rarely is ‘perfect’! We all know this very well! If life were perfect the whole time then this would be a different story and we wouldn’t need to be thinking all the time, but this is very much like saying ‘If pigs could fly’… This objection  – solid as it might seem at first glance – brings us back to the nub of what we started off by saying in this discussion – sometimes we come across ‘imperfections’ that both need to be (and can be) rectified and in this cases thinking is the right man for the job. But most of the time the so-called ‘imperfections’ can’t be fixed and actually don’t need to be fixed anyway. We only think that they are ‘imperfections’ and that they need to be fixed…

 

Generally speaking, what we automatically relate to as ‘irritants’ or ‘imperfections’ are seen as such purely as a result of our ‘arbitrarily-biased viewpoint’, purely as a result of our ‘likes and dislikes’ (or what mindfulness teacher Rob Nairn calls ‘our preferences’). This being the case, there is no real need to try to get the world to accord with our idea or it, our concept of it. The world is the way that it is (whatever that way is) all by itself, and there really is no necessity at all for us to take responsibility for it, as regards its ‘essential nature’. We clearly can’t do this – and even if we could (which would be a ridiculous notion) – that wouldn’t be a good thing. We don’t really know what we’re doing, after all, so why would we want to ‘put ourselves in charge’?

 

To control or regulate a few specific (or ‘bounded’) aspects of the world is one thing, and no one’s going to argue about the necessity to do this, but when we automatically try to try to control or regulate the whole of reality (without having a clue that this is what we are actually doing or why we might be wanting to do it) then this is another thing entirely. What we’re looking at here is the difference – we might say – between conscious and unconscious controlling. In ‘conscious controlling’ I do know what I am doing and why – it’s a practical thing that I’m doing here! I’m trying to obtain a pragmatically useful outcome such as ‘cooking the dinner’ or ‘avoiding a pothole in the road’. With ‘unconscious controlling’, as we have just said, I don’t know what I am doing or why I am trying to do it. I don’t even know that I am controlling, most of the time!

 

When I ‘m controlling and I know that I am then there’s a god chance that I will stop controlling once I have achieved what I want to achieve. When I’ve cooked the dinner I’ll let go of the idea of doing so; when I have successfully avoided the pothole in the road then I no longer have to strive to achieve this outcome! When I don’t know that I am controlling then how am I ever going to stop?  In this case we can say that ‘the controlling has taken over’ – the controlling has got the upper hand and it’s actually controlling me! The need to control is controlling me and so my constant controlling (or attempting to control) is really something that has been forced upon me. Very clearly, this is not a healthy state of affairs. Very clearly, no helpful outcome is ever going to be achieved as a result of ‘unconscious controlling’!

 

What we’re really talking about in this discussion is of course our thinking, and the unconscious habit that we have of ‘thinking all the time without paying attention to the fact that we are doing so’. Thinking and controlling are the same thing – we think in order to try to gain control and we can’t gain control without thinking. Just as runaway controlling can’t ever be helpful, neither can runaway thinking. How could runaway thinking ever possibly be ‘helpful’? We don’t even know what we trying to achieve with our thinking – we’re so lost in our thinking that most of the time we’re not even aware that we’re doing so. As Eckhart Tolle says, the human condition is to be ‘lost in thought’. Because we’re ‘lost in thinking’ there isn’t ever going to be an end to it!  When we’re ‘controlling for the sake of controlling’ then there’s no end to the controlling and when we’re ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’ then there’s never ever going to be any end to the thinking! We’re stuck on the treadmill of thought and we’re not going to get anything for it – there’s no prize, no jackpot, no bonus waiting for us at the other end…

 

When we are on the treadmill of runaway thinking then we’re disconnected from the world as it actually is in itself on a full-time basis. This doesn’t mean that we’re in a state of total dissociation (although this is of course a particular, extreme example of being disconnected), it just means that we’re living exclusively in the world of rational representations, which is the Conceptualized World (or ‘the world of our abstract ideas about reality’). The Conceptual World can match the real world so well (on a superficial level at least) that it is perfectly possible to get on in life and appear to be perfectly ‘well’ in ourselves, but there is nevertheless always going to be something important missing. What’s missing is the awareness of the actual freshness of life as it is in itself, which is an awareness that children have but which we as adults have almost entirely forgotten about. We lost our unconditioned awareness and we’re making do with conditioned consciousness instead, which will allow us to ‘go through the motions of life’ it is true, but as we go through the motions we nevertheless miss what life is really about. This constitutes a rather major ‘malaise’ therefore, and it’s a malaise that almost all of us are suffering from. It’s the malaise that comes about as a result of living life in a purely rational or conceptual way and the way it affects us is – as Jung says – in terms of ‘loss of meaning’.

 

We can live with this ‘loss of meaning’ because we can fill our lives with all sorts of empty distractions and entertainments (and this is exactly what we do do) but the price we pay is a lack of joy and peace in ourselves, a lack of any true ‘ease’. We may (and often do) deny this of course, and proclaim ourselves to be living happy and fulfilling lives but this is more of an image we feel obliged to project than anything else. If we’re all so fulfilled then why are more and more people presenting to doctors with anxiety and depression? Are we really as fulfilled as we like to say we are? Over-thinking means that our ‘quality of life’ has been tremendously degraded but because this has become ‘the norm’ no one ever remarks on it. What else do we have to go on, after all?

 

The percentage of the population suffering from depression and anxiety has been on the increase for the last sixty years and is expected to go on increasing, according to the World Health Organization, but still we go looking for an answer in all the wrong places. The medical approach suggests that it is mainly to do with our genes and how these genes affect our brain chemistry, for example. It certainly doesn’t suggest that our problem is that we all think too much! But how much simpler would it be if this was the reason – if this was the case we could all do something about it! We could start to become aware of our thinking for a start, and the more aware we become of our thinking the less it gets to control us…

 

 

Art: Mel Chin, Wake

 

 

 

 

Overthinking Life

When we think “How do I be in the world?” this jinxes us. As soon as we have this thought (or any variant of it) we are jinxed – we’re jinxed and we can’t back-track out of it again, no matter how clever we might get, no matter what tricks we might try. Once we start trying to solve this problem we can’t ever stop, in other words.

 

As soon as we think “How do I be in the world?” or “What is the right way to live life?” we are overthinking it. This is a simple enough point to make (it’s the simplest point anyone could ever make, actually) but it also doesn’t happen to be a point that we want to hear! It doesn’t make any sense to us, and even if it did make sense we wouldn’t how make use of it. We’ve already gone down the slippery slope and there’s nothing that we can (deliberately) do to get out of the trap. Deliberation is the trap, after all!

 

The reason we are so averse to hearing this message, or any variant of it, is because we are convinced on a very deep level that there is a right way to think about things, that there is a right way to ‘approach life’. This is so obvious to us that we don’t even need to go around saying it. The fact that we have never actually hit upon this ‘right way’ doesn’t seem to discourage us with regard to this belief in the slightest! We’re convinced that there must be a rational (or thought-based) way to approach life, so we keep on doggedly looking for it…

 

This is the snag in a nutshell – that we believe that there must be some special angle that we can cleverly utilize, some special ‘Get-out-of-jail-free’ card that we can play. It makes so much sense to us that we should be able to find the right angle, the right approach. Our whole way of life is based on this unspoken assumption; our very ‘modality of existence’ is founded upon this premise. Our ‘modality of existing in this world’ is based on thought and thought – by its very nature – is always looking for answers, always looking for solutions.

 

Of course, ‘looking for answers’ or ‘looking for solutions’ sounds like a very good thing to us – it sounds like an admirable attitude to have. It sounds right and proper, and the fact that it sounds right and proper shows us something important about ourselves – it shows us that we have become divorced from reality itself. The point is that reality itself is neither right nor wrong, neither this nor that, and yet – when we are in the grip of thought – we go around assuming that everything must be either one way or the other. Because we see the world in this polar (or ‘split’) way we are constantly analysing and controlling; analysing / controlling has, in other words, become ‘our way of being in the world’.

 

The whole world has to fit into our categories of good/bad, right/wrong, valuable/not valuable therefore and this is an absolutely crazy situation. How can we do this to the world? Why would we want to? What is possessing us? And if we do this to the world then this means that we are also doing it to ourselves; we’re going to try to fit ourselves into these categories as well – we’re going to be either good or bad, right or wrong, valuable or not valuable and this is equally crazy. The world has nothing to do with our absurd categories and neither do we, and yet we’re making our sense of well-being dependent upon how well be are doing at the task of trying to make everything (and ourselves) be the way we think it should be (whether this ‘way’ is absurd or not).

 

All angles – without exception – do this to the world and so if we’re coming at everything from an angle (as we almost always are) then we are imposing this false duality both on ourselves and the world. That’s what ‘angles’ do – they split the world into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; that’s the whole point of an angle, after all. So one the one hand we feel that we are going to gain the advantage by ‘having an angle on things’ but on the other hand this cleverness of ours rebounds on us in a way that is not to our advantage at all! Our classifications end up classifying us, just as Carlos Castaneda says. The tool of thought very neatly ‘turns the tables on us’ and we end up being on the receiving end of the stick and catching a whack in the head rather than dishing one out, as we had intended to.

 

This doesn’t (as we have already pointed out) means that we don’t ever need to have an angle. That isn’t the point at all. It’s not that we never ever need an angle but rather that we don’t need to be ‘looking for the right angle’ on a nonstop basis. Specific situations arise in which we do need an angle (problems arise which do need a solution) but then once the matter has been dealt with one way or another the need is no longer there. Life itself is not ‘a problem to be solved’, in other words, even though we generally end up treating it as such. We end up treating life as if it were a problem to be solved because this is how thought works. This is what thought always does – thought always treats everything as a problem!

 

Thought always treats everything as a problem because that’s just the kind of phenomenon it is – it has to fit everything into boxes of its own making when stuff just doesn’t come ‘in boxes’, when life doesn’t come in boxes. More than this however, life becomes a serious problem to us when we have identified with thought and the products of thought. Life (very much) becomes a problem to me when I identify with the idea of myself that the thinking mind furnishes me with. The problem is really with life of course but with ourselves. The problem is with me, not the world! This is of course a classic example of how the conditioned mind always perceives the truth backwards – I say that the problem is with you, or with the world in general, but really the problem is in me.

 

The problem that we always need to be fixing (or trying to fix) when we have identified ourselves with thought (and the image of ourselves that thought provides us with) is that we’re always placing certain demands on life; we’re always wanting things to work out for us in a particular way, in our words. We have very serious ‘preferences’ – not just with regard to the way things work out for us, but with regard to what we unconsciously require reality to be. Being identified with thought means that we’re always seeing reality in a very narrow and stilted fashion – to us, this is what reality actually is and so we don’t see ourselves as imposing our own arbitrary brand of order onto the world around us.

 

The ‘problem’ that we’re trying to fix with our thinking is how to get reality to be the way we think it ought to be, therefore. We’re trying to twist things to be the way we assume they should be and we’re doing this without having the slightest awareness that this is what we’re doing, and this means that we’re locked into a never-ending series of problems, not just the one, because things are never going to inherently be the way that we unconsciously assume that they should be. This is an ongoing problem that we’re never going to solve because we’re looking at it all wrong – as we have said, the problem isn’t out there in the world but in ourselves and we’re never looking at ourselves. We’re only ever looking outwards at the problems that we ourselves have unwittingly projected onto the world. The problem isn’t that the universe doesn’t play ball, the problem is the fact that we are constantly trying to impose our absurdly narrow and stilted viewpoint onto it!

 

Trying to impose our own brand of order onto the world but not seeing that this is what we are doing (because we genuinely do think that this is the way reality should be) is the very essence of what is meant by the word ‘aggression’. This is aggression in a nutshell. When I aggressively try to correct a problem that I wrongly see as existing out there in the world (and all fixing, all correcting is ultimately aggression) then what I’m really doing is fighting against myself. I’m creating the problem and then I’m trying very seriously, very humourlessly to find the solution as if it wasn’t me who created the need for a solution in the first place. I’m fighting myself but I haven’t a clue that this is what I’m doing. I think that the ‘problem’ is out there, but actually it’s my own aggression (or my own ‘unconsciousness’) that’s the problem…

 

This is why any amount of thinking about ‘how to be in the world’ is ‘overthinking’! Thinking is good (sometimes) for small tasks, but not for the ‘big task’ (so to speak) of how to be yourself, or how to be in the world. Thought is no good for existential questions, in other words, only down-to-earth practicalities. Thinking is generally appropriate for practical matters but it most certainly has no applicability at all to any challenges of what we might call an ‘existential’ nature! Within this context, thought is simply unwarranted and painfully counterproductive aggression. We assume certain things to be true (without of course ever properly examining them) and then we automatically start trying to control the world on the basis of these unconsciously-made assumptions of ours. We automatically start trying to fix everything on the basis of ‘how we think it should be’. This is what ‘unconscious living’ is all about – it’s all about conflict, it’s all about us projecting our assumptions on everything without seeing that this is what we’re doing.

 

When we’re living this way (i.e. on the basis of thought) then we never see beyond the conflict, we never see beyond the struggle. Our own assumed reality is the only reality we know, the only one we have any awareness of, and so all we ever know of life is this constant fighting, this constant struggling. The only world we ever know is this unhappy ‘battleground’, this ‘conflict-zone’ of us unconsciously trying to impose our own patented form of order on everything (and everyone) we encounter. When the struggle seems to be going our way (which it never really is of course because our patented brand of order is an artificial construct that couldn’t survive a second on its own) we experience pleasure and satisfaction and feel that all is well with the world, and when we see that things aren’t going our way then we experience the reverse of this – we experience pain and frustration, anguish and demoralization and so on – and we feel that things are fundamentally not right with the world.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we’re in the conditioned or unconscious mode of existing in the world then we never see beyond ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘like and dislike’. No other reality exists for us. No reality other than this false ‘polar’ one exists – we actually incapable (when we’re in the conditioned modality) of understanding how there could be any other way of looking at things than the dualist or polar viewpoint that is provided for us by the thinking mind. We completely fail to see that this duality is our own projection that we’re imposing on the world, and as a result we never ever see beyond the ongoing struggle or conflict that is us. By thinking at all (when it comes to this question of ‘how to be in the world’) we isolate ourselves from reality as it is in itself, which is infinitely serene, infinitely profound, infinitely harmonious. As the Buddhist teachings say, ‘the nature of all phenomena is perfectly tranquil’. The world we create for ourselves with our aggression however is not serene, not profound, not harmonious. It is – on the contrary – both utterly shallow and irredeemably conflicted. And just so long as we remain helplessly identified with the tool of thought, as we have already said, this is the only reality we are ever going to know…

 

 

 

 

 

The Mythological Life


We’re living life in two ways at once and it is of absolutely crucial importance not to lose sight of either! One if these ways is  – we might say – when we live life on a down-to-earth pragmatic basis and only concern ourselves with issues that have undeniable ‘concrete’ significance to us. Pragmatic issues have a way of driving out all ‘non-pragmatic’ ones and when this happens we fall into seeing the concrete way of life as being the only way. Everything else gets dismissed as being ridiculous and fanciful – we don’t have time for people who talk about things in any other way, we very quickly lose patience with them…

 

‘Concrete mode’ is very easy to understand – it’s the default mode, the mode that everything very easily settles down into. It’s the mode in which we do everything ‘on purpose‘, as part of some prosaic logical plan.The other mode is what we might call ‘mythological mode’ and this isn’t so easy to understand – if the concrete mode is where we relate to everything in this down-to-earth, no-nonsense way as the down-to-earth practical everyday person we are, then the mythological mode is where everything unaccountably takes on some ‘bigger’ type of significance. Life in the mythological mode is more than just obtaining this concrete goal and then that concrete goal, and going from A to B and then B to C in the prescribed logical fashion and ticking all the boxes in an orderly fashion, it has some strange and essentially ‘impersonal’ meaning. It’s ‘impersonal’ in the sense that it’s not just on this tiny scale where we are living our mundane personal life where we are endlessly preoccupied with all these petty meaningless details – it is significant in a way that goes entirely beyond this mundane sphere. Our affairs are no longer ‘purely personal’ but meaningful in some epic sense, a sense that goes far, far beyond the trivial things that society says we are to concern ourselves with. This ‘non-trivial’ or ‘mythological’ aspect of life is the aspect that the everyday concrete mind dismisses out of hand.

 

As we have said, because of the overwhelming ‘pressure of the practical’ it is almost a foregone conclusion that we are going to ‘lose sight of the mythological’ – in our culture losing sight of the mythological is actually part of becoming an adult! If you don’t then you’re not considered to be an adult – you’ve got ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’, you refuse to grow up and be sensible about things. When we lose sight of the mythological this isn’t a step towards maturity however – it’s a step towards inner death, which isn’t quite the same thing. When we live purely on the concrete-personal level then we diminish ourselves tremendously. Life is so very much more than we take it to be. We ourselves are so very much more than we take ourselves to be. We are so much more than our family and friends take us to be, which is why families and friendship groups very often inhibit any possibility of inner growth. We are so much more than society takes us to be and this is why society – despite being a necessary support to us on one level (the concrete level!) is a psychological threat to us on another, crucially important level. What’s the point in being kept alive and entertained and well-fed if our ‘inner life’ is totally suppressed and denied?

 

When we live purely on the concrete level we’re ‘living beneath ourselves’ and the consequences of this are tremendous. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

 

We cannot live beneath ourselves, and fail to bring forth what is with is us (because our rational society implicitly tells us every step of the way that there is nothing remarkable within us, nothing that needs to be brought out) with impunity – the consequence of this is our neurotic suffering, which gradually eats us alive, one way or another. It is no mere accident that the rates of depression and anxiety have been steadily increasing for the last one hundred years – we often like to say that there is a genetic component to mental disorders but how do we imagine that after millions of years of evolution our DNA is suddenly developing faults? Antidepressants are hardly going to prove a remedy for the fact that our modern way of living life is entirely shallow and neglectful of any non-trivial meaning! What Jung calls (not in his exact words) ‘an epidemic of soul-sickness the like of which we have never known’ is scarcely going to be cured by the judicious prescription of psychiatric drugs to dull our existential anguish!

 

On the other hand, if we lose sight of our ‘feet’ and get swallowed up by the mythological world, this has very great consequence too. If we lose our connection with our actual practical, pragmatic life and find ourselves adrift in what Jung calls ‘the realm of the unconscious’ then we may never come back to ourselves. This is a dangerous journey and we cannot treat it as if it were not; Joseph Campbell refers to this as ‘the hero’s journey’ for a reason – the reason being that it tests us to the limit. Since when did heroes have an easy time of it? The terrible dangers that we read about in myths and legends all have their psychological meaning and this comes down to our ‘sense of ourselves’ being overpowered by the tremendous forces that exist in the mythological realm. We cannot simply launch ourselves into this world, as we are, and naively expect it to somehow work out for us on this basis. The mythological realm is powerfully intoxicating to the everyday mind – either we get intoxicated with hubris or we get intoxicated with fear, and either way spells disaster.

 

Somehow, we have to live life both ways at the same time – we have to ‘walk the tightrope’, so to speak. As we have said, on either side lies disaster – if we fall to one side we get swallowed up by the banality of everyday life and disappear without a trace, and if we fall the other way we get swallowed up by the mythological realm and also disappear without a trace. By far the biggest danger – for most of us – is that we will be browbeaten and intimidated by the concrete world and prevailed upon to renounce the world within us that – on some level – we know to be true. We are bullied into abject submission by sheer peer-pressure – fifty million people (or however many it is) can’t be wrong, after all! But actually X million people can be ‘wrong’ and – from a psychological point of view – always will be. Only the individual can be ‘the carrier of virtue’, says Jung – the state (or the collective) never can be. Virtue can never reside in the collective or the social group because no one in the group is truly being themselves – the mass mind has no conscience, no sense of responsibility and there is no way that it can be compelled to be conscientious or responsible by legislation. To be subsumed with ‘group-mind’ is to lose yourself – if we have lost ourselves then we’re simply not there and if we’re not there then how can we possibly ever ‘take responsibility’?

 

The process of social adaptation is the process of losing the mythological aspect of life because the mythological aspect of life can never be consciously experienced (or acknowledged) on the level of mass consciousness. It can be experienced unconsciously, as Jung of course says, but this is another matter entirely! We are not consciously participating in life in this case, but merely resigning ourselves to the fate of being puppeted by external forces which we have zero awareness of. We are ‘mere mechanical units’ and the reason we think we are doing things is not the real reason. Instead of a genuine inner life, we internalize some crude external script (the ready-made narrative that our society provides for us) and we imagine that this tawdry second-hand generic artefact is our inner life. We imagine that when we read from this script then that is ‘free will’…

 

The mythological mode of living life cannot be taken from a script or template and it cannot be the same for ten million people – somehow, we have to discover it ourselves and in order to discover it for ourselves we have to see the reality that lies beyond the concrete, matter-of-fact one. This can only happen when we find the courage to stop believing automatically in everything the super-pragmatic rational mind tells – rationality is what represses us, in other words, and at the same time that it represses us it will not let us know that it does, but rather (like a bad parent!) it always persuades us that it is acting in our best interests! If we do allow ourselves to be thus persuaded then this is the same thing as ‘losing touch with the mythological dimension of life’ and when we lose touch with the mythological dimension of life then we are consigned to an existence of ‘merely surviving’, and existence in which the only option left to us is to entertain ourselves as best we can until we die. The rational mind – if we let it reign over us – will always reduce us to this level; the rational mind is a device for carrying out pragmatic or concrete tasks and so if we let it ‘take over’ and ‘run everything for us’ then it will turn our lives into no more than ‘a concrete or pragmatic task’. What else can it do?

 

Rationality, by its very nature, always denies anything that it cannot – in principle, at least – understand and it is crucially important to see this. Rational thought – as is often said – is a very powerful servant but an appalling bad master. It’s a bad master because when it takes control it permanently (and invisibly) limits us to a very narrow little world – the narrow little world that it itself creates for us. In this world the only purposes are logical purposes, rational purposes, concrete purposes and no one can live their life on such an arid basis. Or rather we can, but when we do we end up suffering from the all-pervading sense of meaningless and alienation from life that Jung calls ‘soul-sickness’. Soul-sickness is the inevitable result of being confined to that narrow and juice-less world that the rational mind creates for us. It is the inevitable result of living life without the mythological dimension, which is the one thing the RT cannot provide us with. It can provide us with rules and regulations aplenty, but not a mythological dimension…

 

To the logical mind any talk of ‘mythological dimensions’ is simply nonsense, as we have already said.  Myths are not real, it says. Myths are just myths! The logical mind will inform us over and over again that only cold hard facts are real, that only the concrete everyday world is real. Its argument is very persuasive – and ultimately crushingly persuasive – but at the same time what it lead us to believe in is entirely false. There’s something silly about us if we believe it. ‘Facts and figures’ are not real at all – they are mind-created abstractions. The concrete world that we are compelled from an early age to believe in is similarly a fiction – it’s a world that is made up purely of our own descriptions and our descriptions are our own. They have nothing to do with the world as it is in itself. The world as it is in itself is an inscrutable mystery and it can never be penetrated by us. It can never be rationalized and explained and if we fall into the trap of doing this then we end up prisoners in a dead world. We end up as inmates serving a life sentence in the ‘prison of the rational mind’. We can’t rationalize or explain the world as it is in itself, but we can live it, which is the complete antithesis of existing exclusively in ‘concrete mode’, through the profoundly dubious auspices of the thinking mind…

 

 

Art: Ann Marie Zilberman

 

 

 

 

The Illusion Of Things

The rational mind – which is our way of knowing about the world around us – sings only the one song to us, and it sings it over and over again. We think that this mind of ours is telling us accurate and useful information about the world, and – up to a point – it usually is, but along with this function it is doing something else that is too subliminal for us to be able to pick up on – it is singing this very repetitive ‘siren-song’ for us, a song that is keeping is very effectively trapped.

 

What is this song then? What kind of a song is it? The first point that we could make is to say that it isn’t really very much of a song – it isn’t exactly what you would call ‘melodious’. What it is is an ‘affirmation’, or a ‘confirmation’. There is a starting-off point, a type of a basic assumption, and then thought confirms this assumption over and over again, come what may. Thought always confirms this starting-off point of ours – that’s all it ever can do.

 

The rational mind can never not confirm its own starting-off point – rational thought is after all an extension of that point, a projection of that point out onto the world. If we wanted to be very clear about it then we could say that the rational mind is this starting-off point, this static framework. It is its own fixed point of reference and so it can never leave this reference point behind. To say that the rational mind always confirms or affirms its own starting-off point is rather missing the point therefore – the rational mind is the starting-off point, it is the basic assumption.

 

What then is this ‘song’ that the thinking mind keeps on singing to us over and over again? What exactly are we on about here? Talking about affirming or confirming our basic assumptions is one way of putting it but this is rather dry and intellectual. It is somewhat removed from the realm of human experience – it doesn’t really make that much sense on a personal level. So if we were to use more everyday down-to-earth terms what we’re talking about here is the ‘feedback’ that tells us who we are…

 

The ‘song’ of the rational mind is all about affirming that we are this self, in other words – this self that we started out thinking we were. Everything we think – without any exception – tells us this basic message. There isn’t a thought that we ever thought that didn’t affirm the existence of the thinker that thought the thought! It never happens that we discover anything else through thinking. This then is just another of saying, as Krishnamurti says, that the thinker and the thought are one.

 

It is therefore entirely misleading to say, as we always do say, that the thinker creates the thought! It would be more accurate, more to the point, to say that the thought thinks the thinker (or that ‘thoughts think us’). The thinker is a construct of the thought; thought goes on, thought happens and then we assume (and identify with) the one who is responsible for thinking the thought. But the truth of the matter is that thought isn’t causally and volitionally produced by some autonomous ‘thinker’ – that isn’t it at all! As David Bohm says, the perception that we are there in the driving seat (or the ‘thinking seat’), freely deciding to think this or that thought, is an illusion produced by thought. This illusion comes as ‘part of the package’ – thought tells us that we are thinking the thought when actually thought is thinking us…

 

Sometimes we call the song of the thinking mind ‘the personal narrative’. The personal narrative – which is the ongoing story of ourselves that thought spins for us – can go one of two ways – it can make us feel good about ourselves or it can make us feel bad. It can be ‘positive’ and it can be ‘negative’ (as we commonly say). Naturally we see this as being an ‘all-important’ difference – we actually see it as the all-important difference – but when we look at it from the perspective that we have been exploring here in this discussion we can see that it doesn’t matter at all which way around the personal narrative works – it is confirming our basic assumptions either way.

 

It makes no difference what type of song the rational mind is singing to us – it doesn’t matter whether it is making us feel good or feel bad, whether it is optimistic or pessimistic, whether it makes us love ourselves or hate ourselves – it is the same either way because either way we’re being told that this thinker, this ‘decider’, this ‘enactor of purposes and goals’ is an actual real bone fide ‘entity’ in its own right and not merely an artefact of the thinking mind. The mind-created self is being reified in both cases in other words, one way positively as ‘the winner self’ and the other way negatively as the ‘loser self’, as the ‘failed self’.

 

The song is always telling us that we are either doing well or not doing well, that we are either winning or losing, and this is an entrapping message for us to take on board because both ways we get tricked into identifying with the mind-created self. This is a difficult point for us to understand of course because we are so very identified with the MCS that the notion that this is not who we are is frankly incomprehensible to us. We have no way of grasping what that means. It is as if we are sitting there in our living room in our favourite armchair (in our only armchair) and we have somehow become so extraordinarily habituated to sitting there (watching TV or whatever) that we can no longer see ourselves as being essentially different to and independent of this deeply familiar armchair of ours. We’ve forgotten that we have the possibility of acting independently from it, we’ve forgotten that we have legs and that we can have the ability to get up and walk freely around the place!

 

This might seem like a very far-fetched and not particularly plausible analogy but it is all the same exactly our situation with regard to the MCS. We’ve just got lazy! The MCS is, when it comes down to it, nothing other than a viewpoint, nothing more than a static position that we have gotten used to, nothing more than a set of assumptions that we can’t see beyond anymore. We stood in this spot so long that we’ve forgotten that it is possible to move around, to change our position and look at the world in a different way, see things from a different viewpoint. We have somehow grown into the armchair, our behinds – due to lack of movement – have got stuck fast to the armchair and so now it’s not just that we can’t ever get up out of this all-too—comfortable position, we’ve become incapable of seeing that this is even a possibility.

 

The ‘problem’ – so to speak – is that the thinking mind always presents everything (its vision of the word) in terms of static viewpoints, whilst the nature of reality itself – which is not a category, not a construct of the thinking mind – could be less ‘static’. The principle of reality is, we might say, antithetical to that of thought. This doesn’t means that reality is the ‘opposite’ of what we think it is because opposites exist only in thought, nowhere else. ‘Yes’ is the opposite of ‘no’ but there is neither yes or no in the world itself! The world itself is neither right nor wrong. ‘Yes’ means that the thing fits into the category that we have made and ‘no’ means that it doesn’t but our categories are our own affair – reality itself has nothing to do with our categories. ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are both equally irrelevant; the thinking mind can’t actually relate to reality, in other words. It has no terms for reality – it has no terms for reality because reality doesn’t have any ‘terms’…

 

Reality has no place within the static framework and neither do we. How could we have possibly imagined that it does, or that we do? How could we have been that crazy? We are so very used to seeing and understanding everything in terms of the static framework of thought that we just can’t ‘get it’ that this is a wholly artificial (and therefore fundamentally misrepresentative) way of presenting the world. A good way to look at this is by saying, as Alan Watts has done, that the universe isn’t a noun (i.e. a subject or an object in the sentence) but a verb. The universe, in other words, is ‘a happening not a thing’. The verb (e.g. running, jumping, loving, laughing) can contain nouns but it is not produced by them. There is no one doing the running, the jumping, the loving, the laughing, there is just the ‘happening’ of it. There is the happening of the happening and that is it. ‘The verbs are verbing’,as David Mermin says here (quote taken from Jason Silva’s short video):

Matter acts, but there are no actors behind the actions:the verbs are verbing all by themselves without a need to introduce nouns. Actions act upon their actions. Properties are all there is. Indeed: there are no things.

There is therefore no isolated or abstracted entity there in the background causing the happening to happen – that’s just an erroneous perception caused by the way thought works. ‘God is a verb‘ as Buckminster Fuller says!To quote Piet Hut, professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton:

No thing exists, there are only actions. We live in a world of verbs, and nouns are only shorthand for those verbs whose actions are sufficiently stationary to show some thing-like behavior. These statements may seem like philosophy or poetry, but in fact they are an accurate description of the material world, when we take into account the quantum nature of reality.

In the same way then we can say who we are is a verb not a noun, not a subject or object. Who we are is a happening, with no one ‘making it happen’. We are actually the very same happening as the universe – there’s only the one happening happening, not a whole bunch of them, not a collection of them! How could there be any ‘separate happenings’, anyway? ‘Separation’ belongs only to the world of things – separation is what makes things into things. In the Great Happening which is every-‘thing’ there is no separation. In the Great Happening which is everything there are no things! As Bodhidharma said one thousand five hundred years ago, ‘From the very beginning, not a thing was’. There never was any ‘thing’ – it’s only the rational/categorical mind that says there was. Even though there never was any ‘thing’, the rational mind keeps on telling is that there was, and is, and will be. This is its song. The rational mind keeps on telling us that there are such things as things and furthermore, it keeps on telling us that we are one of them!

 

 

Image: Jeda Villa Painting by Jan Wils. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.
Taken from: refinethemind.com