Not Scratching An Itchy Nose


The key to finding freedom from compulsivity (which is where we very strongly feel that we have to do something!) is being able to hang out in our discomfort zones. It is the inability to hang out in our discomfort zones that makes us helpless slaves to whatever compulsion it is that comes along. A simple example of this principle is a person who cannot say no when someone asks him or her for a favour. Now it is of course good to do favours but it is not good if I help people out only because I am unable not to do so! Suppose that I am one such person. You ask me if I would mind looking after your three children for a couple of hours while you go off to see to some matter or other. On this occasion, let us say, I have stuff to do myself, and it would be very inconvenient for me to baby-sit. However, I know that if I say “no” then I will feel terrible – it might be that I will feel bad that I am so mean to you, or terrified in case you think I am an awful person, or frightened that I might be hurting your feelings by my rejection. I might feel guilty about not helping you – it is, after all, very easy to take on board someone else’s problems and then feel bad if we can’t do something to help.


It can be seen from this example however that my real concern is to do with not experiencing the pain of the guilt, or the pain of (possibly) hurting someone’s feelings, or the pain of being negatively evaluated by another person. Because I am so unwilling to experience the pain (or the discomfort) of not doing what you want me to do, I have to go ahead and say “yes”, even though saying “yes” is going to cause me a whole lot of trouble later on. I have no other choice. If I could find some way of saying “no” and avoiding the pain at the same time I would, but I am caught in a trap. Either I go along with what you want and put up with the inconvenience, or I say “no” and feel bad, and the thought of feeling bad makes me automatically take the first option. The cure for this situation is obvious enough – don’t be afraid of feeling bad. If I have no problem with feeling bad then I am not in a trap – I can say “yes” if it is not too inconvenient, or I can say “no”. In other words, I am free to say “yes” or “no”, I am not being pressurized. Normally, we think it is the other person (or the situation) that is pressurizing us, but it isn’t – it is our own unexamined refusal to experience discomfort that has us under pressure!


The example given above is a simplistic one, but the principle applies for all compulsions, without exception. Whether it is the urge to smoke a cigarette, the urge to lose my temper with someone who is annoying me, the urge to escape from an anxiety-provoking situation, the urge to feel sorry for myself – they are all compulsions and they all make me their slave purely because of my unwillingness to experience discomfort (i.e. the discomfort of not acting on the urge).


So now we have redefined the problem. Instead of saying that the problem is how to successfully obey the compulsion, or successfully fight the compulsion with an equal and opposite compulsion, we are saying that the problem is how to refrain from obeying and/or fighting. The problem is how to ‘hang out’ in the discomfort zone. In the most profound sense this is not a problem at all because there is nothing to be achieved that is not already there. I am already in the discomfort zone, and so I don’t have anything to do. In a practical sense, however, there is a problem because I don’t know how to ‘not do’. I am so used to automatically ‘doing’, automatically ‘reacting’, that I simply do not know any other way. Either I obey the urge, which is , or I fight the urge, which is . I don’t know anything else apart from oscillating between these two poles. Basically, I am trapped in reacting – either I react, or I react to my reacting. Either I say or to the original compulsion, or I say to my saying or , but whatever I do, it still inevitably comes down to or . So how do I escape my own automatic reacting?


There is a neat way of illustrating this predicament and that is the exercise of ‘not scratching an itchy nose’. All you have to do is wait until the next time you have an itchy nose and try out not scratching it. The first thing we notice is that the urge to scratch actually gets worse when we try to resist it – it dominates our consciousness, it becomes huge. What has happened is that we have made scratching/not scratching into a major issue, and as a consequence we have got sucked into an ongoing irresolvable conflict situation.


It is of course possible to sit there and deliberately not scratch, even though the itch has by now assumed unbearable proportions. The problem is though that the thing has already gone wrong because it has become such an issue – I have come to a virtual standstill because all my resources are going into fighting the compulsion, and the more I fight the more obsessively fixated I get on the little itch (which is by now not such a little itch). We intuitively know that the whole thing has become stupid at this stage and so what usually happens is that we just say – “The hell with it” and give the itch a scratch so that we can forget about it and get on with our lives. We know on some level that, even if we do successfully resist the compulsion, the victory is a false one because all we did was substitute another compulsion for the itch. In other words, I manage to not obey the ‘scratching compulsion’ by obeying the ‘compulsion not to scratch’, so actually I am still copping out. I am still scratching, only this time the itch I am scratching is the new itch which is the itch to resist scratching. I swapped itches, but I am still in the state of slavery to itches. I am still just an ‘automatic reaction machine’.


The point here is that it is totally and utterly impossible to defeat a compulsion by saying or to it. As soon as we do that we are lost, which is to say, as soon as we assume a deliberate posture with regard to the itch, we are reacting. Another way to explain this is to say that a compulsion is ‘an invitation to play the game’. If I say “Yes I will play the game” then I am playing the game, and if I say “No I will not play the game” then I am still playing the game, because by taking the compulsion seriously I have (without realizing it) accepted the terms of the game. The terms of the game are simply that the game by taken seriously, that the goals which are important within the context of the game should also be seen as important by me. Obviously, once I do that, then I am by definition playing the game!


We can also explain this by saying that the compulsion is a trigger – it triggers us to react, to do. It doesn’t matter what sort of reacting, what sort of doing, because as soon as we are triggered into doing we have got sucked into the game. The trigger is of no consequence if I do not react because nothing comes of it – if I do not ‘do’ then I do not make an issue of anything and so I do not get stuck in the issue, and so there is no problem, no conflict situation. Not doing – not reacting to the trigger – doesn’t mean ignoring the trigger (which is treating the trigger as something special), it means treating the trigger the same as everything else. In the terms which we have been using, saying and both means ‘treating the trigger as something special’. ‘Not doing’ can be expressed in terms of <?>, which is open, unprejudiced awareness. <?> is simply consciousness, or ‘seeing what is there’.


Going back to the ‘itchy nose’ experiment, what this means is that the way to do it is by just being aware of the itchiness, without treating it as anything special. Where I tend to go wrong is by thinking that I have to be ‘aware of the itchiness’ on purpose, which is a mistake because the awareness is there by itself. Seeing happens by itself, it is not something that we ‘do’. The crucial insight is that I cannot deliberately be in a state of open, unprejudiced awareness, because ‘deliberate’ always means prejudice. The answer is simply to be myself, but I cannot be myself on purpose because ‘being myself’ is not a deliberate stance – it is not a position in a game, it is what happens naturally when I am not making an issue of anything.


<?> is a kind of natural balance point that needs no energy input to maintain. If I say then I have to maintain it and if I say I have to maintain it. I need to be there, to be actively involved in ‘propping up the situation’. If I take up a position then I need to defend that position. We can explain what we mean by this by looking at the problem of low self-esteem.


Often when a person has low self-esteem they are advised to try to think more positively about themselves. In other words, they are told to take up a certain position with regard to the question of whether they are crappy or not. We can analyse this in the same way that we have been looking at ‘scratching an itch’. In the case of low self-esteem, the feeling of inferiority (or embarrassment/shame) is the trigger and reacting to the trigger (i.e. scratching the itch) takes the form of either [1] saying to it by saying that “I am a crap person” or [2] saying to it by saying “I am a worthwhile person”. Both of these reactions provide momentary relief from the pain of the itch, but both also exacerbate the underlying problem – both responses make the itch worse, i.e. they make the issue bigger not smaller. The helpful thing to do is to take no position on the underlying painful feeling of inadequacy or inferiority. Seeing it is all I can do, really.


We might say that the thing to do is to take an ‘unprejudiced’ position but this would be misleading, because (as we have already noted) any position that I deliberately take is inevitably going to be prejudiced. It has to be prejudiced because it (i.e. the attitude or position) arose in connection with an aim or goal, and goals are by definition prejudiced! On the one hand what we are saying here seems to be ‘hopeless’ because what we are saying is that it is utterly impossible to mentally manoeuvre ourselves so as to not have low self-esteem, if we do have low self-esteem. There is no way to put a helpful slant on it in order to ‘adjust’ away the inadequate feelings. This sounds bad, naturally. On the other hand, what we are saying is actually good news, because what we are saying is that we are already doing the right thing, before we even started doing anything. The ‘right thing’ is simply to feel the pain and not try to fix things so I don’t feel so bad. Going back to the example of the itchy nose, the point is that it is okay for the itch to be there – the itch doesn’t really need a response, it just feels like it does. As long as I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘I need to do something about it’, then there is no problem. I don’t need to react, and I don’t need to act so that I don’t react. The situation is right just as it is.


We have used the example of an itchy nose and the example of low self-esteem. The principle applies across the board, as we have said – it doesn’t matter what the itch or compulsion is. In anxiety it is ‘the itch to run away’ (i.e. fear), in anger it is the itch to attack, or the itch to defend oneself, and in OCD it is the itch to check or correct. In all cases what is happening is that we are trying to avoid discomfort or pain, and by avoiding the pain we only succeed in making the underlying compulsion stronger, just for the sake of momentary relief.


The key is to not feed the engine of reacting, because when we stop feeding it the engine gradually runs out of steam, without anyone having to ‘do’ anything. One metaphor is that of the muddy pool. When a pond gets muddy no amount of stirring or ‘messing about’ will fix it to make it stop being muddy. The more we mess about with it the muddier it gets, because it is our attempts to clear the water that keep it cloudy. The cure is to leave it to be muddy, even though this might be annoying, frustrating or painful to us. Once we stop interfering the mud will unfailingly settle and the water will clear all by itself – it might take a while, but there is no way to rush it. There is nothing else to do apart from letting it alone. The exact same is true with the muddied pond of our thoughts and emotions. We cannot use thinking to clear an upset or distorted mind because it is thinking that made everything confused in the first place.


No matter how bad the discomfort is in our mind, if it is allowed (if it is left alone) it will return to clarity and peace. Even though this is a very simple remedy, it is still easy to get confused. It seems that we can’t help trying to ‘smooth out the wrinkles’ ourselves, and even when we understand the idea of ‘not doing’ we spoil it by trying to ‘do’ the ‘not doing’. Suppose I have a compulsion to scratch an itch. My original formulation of my predicament is to say that it is the pain of the itch, which I try to solve by scratching. My attempt to scratch is based on my desire to escape the pain. When I get a bit of insight I see that my predicament is actually my on-going attempt to ‘fix’ the itch, and my inability to stop fixing.


This is always the predicament when it comes right down to it. There is absolutely no way to deliberately free myself from automatic reacting, and my attempts to do so only serve to fuel the whole thing. This is the bottom line – I cannot escape on purpose, and if I think I can then that is only because I am psychologically unconscious. One way of defining the state of psychological unconsciousness is to say that it is pain avoidance which is so thorough that we do not even know that this is what we are doing. In other words, I believe that my motivation for acting is one thing, whilst actually I have a hidden agenda the whole time and that hidden agenda is to distract myself from seeing something that I don’t want to see.


When I am in the state of psychological unconsciousness I always believe that there is some way to ‘fix it’. Because of this belief, I am always on the move, never accepting the truth of where I am. Therefore, although the discovery that I cannot escape on purpose (become free from my mind on purpose) initially seems like bad news, actually it is a very helpful insight because it means that I am no longer unconscious. I am no longer avoiding the pain of seeing my true predicament, which is that I cannot really change my situation by deliberate action – and because I am no longer avoiding pain I am no longer feeding the engine of automatic reacting. Even though I can’t stop trying to fix, by seeing that my attempts to fix the situation are futile I am in the state of conscious frustration, and it is through conscious frustration that the engine of automatic reacting is drained of its terrible ‘dead momentum’. This is how we do psychological work.






The Engine of Automatic Reacting


In each of us there is something that might be called the engine of automatic reacting. Another way to explain this ‘engine’ would be to say that it is ‘force of habit’. This would be the more usual way to talk about automatic reacting, but it suffers from the drawback of being too familiar to us, so that we don’t really think about it that much. The idea of force of habit seems fairly harmless to us – at worst it is something that is annoying or frustrating. A lot of the time, it is simply invisible because it doesn’t get in the way. For example, if I have a habit of always having a cup of tea first thing in the morning I don’t generally see that as a problem – it’s just what I do. Only when I can’t get a cup of tea in the morning would it be a problem, and even then I wouldn’t see the habit as being the problem but the lack of availability of teabags, or whatever. On rare occasions we are forced to confront the fact that we have a genuinely nefarious habit that we can’t get rid of, but even when this happens we still do not appreciate how widespread or endemic the problem is, and how much of a threat it is.


In the following discussion we are going to suggest that the engine of automatic reacting is both a very remarkable thing, and very terrible thing. It is remarkable because it is a sort of powerhouse that goes on and on, never running out of energy. In fact, rather than running out of steam as time goes on, it gets more and more powerful, more and more ‘unstoppable’. This is why it is also a terrible thing. In its unstoppability, it is like the legendary ‘perpetual motion machine’ that generations of eccentric inventors have tried in vain to come up with. Up to now, no one has ever invented a perpetual motion machine and the reason for this is that all mechanical processes involve friction which means an inevitable loss of momentum. We just can’t produce a totally friction-free mechanism. The mental machine that is automatic reacting is friction-free however, as we can show with the help of a few examples.


Our first example is provided by the common and well-known phenomenon of two people having a blazing row. First I say something hurtful, then you say something hurtful back, and then, stung by your mean comment, I come back with a mean comment of my own. This is exactly like a pendulum swinging first one way, and then the other. The reason there is no friction in this continual ‘reacting’ is because the momentum (or energy) of the swinging pendulum is not absorbed by either person, but reflected back. At the heart of this tit-for-tat reacting is the refusal to accept pain, and it is the refusal to accept pain that is at the heart of all automatic mental reactions.


It is easy enough to see how this works: when I sting you with an unkind remark you feel bad, and the automatic way to deal with feeling bad is simply to ‘pass it on’. It is as if I hit a ping-pong ball at you, and you (having none of it) promptly hit it back at me. When you return with a stinging remark directed at me, this is a way of avoiding pain, and it is also a way of obtaining satisfaction – the satisfaction of putting your opponent in their place with the ‘ultimate put-down’.


Psychologically speaking, the attempt to avoid pain and the attempt to gain satisfaction are one and the same thing, they are the two sides of the same coin – the coin of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the motivation behind ‘reacting’, the motivation behind automatic behaviour. We can see this by looking at another example of a perpetual motion machine, which is addiction. Once an addiction is established, it can go on and on just about forever. The basic mechanism is the same swinging pendulum type thing: at one end of the swing there is the grasping for satisfaction which is when I take the addictive substance. A bit later on, I start to feel bad because the high is wearing off, and I am no longer experiencing euphoria but rebound depression, or cold turkey, or something like that. This bad feeling triggers me to obtain another dose of the drug, which fuels another swing of the pendulum. This goes back and forth, back and forth, until the time comes when I get so sick of the imprisoning pattern of addiction that I am willing to swallow the pain of the negative end of the cycle without acting to avoid it. When I do this, the momentum or energy of the pendulum is absorbed, and it finally comes to rest.


The same is true for the swinging pendulum of an argument – one person has to unconditionally accept the pain that has been sent their way, they have got to absorb the momentum of the ping-pong ball that is coming across the table at them. This hurts, and there is no satisfaction to be had in it. It goes totally against the grain of our automatic reacting machine, but it always works in the end because unless we ‘play the game’ by reacting to discomfort (or reaching out for satisfaction) the whole to-and-fro movement of the mechanism cannot continue. It is our knee-jerk aversion to pain, and our knee-jerk attraction to pleasure, that perpetuates the perpetual motion of the engine of automatic reacting.


To find an example of this tendency in action, we have only to think about the phenomenon of ‘having to have the last word’ that we sometimes see enacted in an argument, where one person just has to have the final word before leaving the room. The reason this is so important is purely because of the unwillingness to accept pain, and the desire for the satisfaction of being ‘one up’. I don’t want to be put in a bad light, and I do want to put the other person in a bad light (even though I of course see it as being the correct slant on things). If both people insist on having the last word, what we have is a never-ending game of ping-pong – it has to be never-ending because for it to end someone has to not have the last word, and neither party is willing to have this happen to them.


The example of an argument is clearly a ‘two player’ game, but the same principle operates in ‘one player’ games, an example of which would checking in OCD. Suppose I have a compulsion to keep checking and rechecking my letters before I post them, because I am worried that I might have put the wrong letter in the wrong envelope. Successful checking brings a momentary feeling of satisfaction, but it also ‘feeds the engine’, which is to say, it makes the underlying compulsion stronger and stronger with time. What this means is that the next time an ambiguous situation comes along (i.e. where I can’t say for sure if the correct letter is in the correct envelope) then I am going to be on the receiving end of a bad feeling which I will want to get rid of. So I try my best to obtain satisfaction by checking, which is equivalent to the tactic of ‘returning the pain’ in an argument involving two people, only this time (obviously) there isn’t actually another person. One way to explain what is going on is to say that I am treating my environment like a giant spring: it pushes me and causes me to feel bad, and so I push back on it in order to get satisfaction. The problem with this is that by pushing (or compressing) the spring I have stored energy up in it, and so sooner or later it will push back at me and the whole familiar ‘back-and-forth’ cycle will be set in motion. I can’t actually get rid of the pain, I can only get momentary relief by pushing it away, which ensures that there will be a return later on. This ‘one person’ game also never ends, because I am totally unwilling ever to be on the receiving end without reacting to send the pain impulse away again.


Chronic anger is also an example of a one-person game. When I feel the initial discomfort of the anger, I react automatically in my head to blame someone (or something) else, and simultaneously vindicate myself. This tactic sends the bad feeling away, just as if the discomfort was a tennis ball and I had hit it a good whack with a racket. However, I haven’t really got rid of the pain because I have conditioned myself to react this way, and I have in the process fixated my consciousness in a particular frame of reference so that I now totally believe in the distorted (or one-sided) version of reality that I had to adopt in order to feel vindicated or justified in the first place. My solution to the problem isn’t a real one – I have in effect ‘cheated’ by fixating on narrow perspective of things in order to obtain a false feeling of satisfaction. If we say that reality is a rubber ball, then I have obtained satisfaction by squeezing it, and because I have squeezed the ball, it is inevitably going to rebound on me at some future point in time. This is what games are all about – deluding ourselves that we can obtain a [+] result without having to make an equal and opposite payback. As long as we think we can have a PLUS without also having to pay a MINUS later on, then the game can (and will) go on indefinitely. Thus, the engine of automatic reaction is fuelled by ignorance, i.e., it is fuelled by our ignoring of the fact that an UP and a DOWN always come hand-in-hand.


Two final examples of perpetual motion one-person games are anxiety and perfectionism. In anxiety the tactic we use to refuse discomfort is avoiding, which involves both fighting and repressing. Essentially, we think that we can evade our fear, but our attempt to evade it actually perpetuates it indefinitely. In perfectionism the game we are playing is of course chasing perfection. The ideal perfect state is always there just in front of our noses, urging us onwards, but somehow we never find the final satisfaction that we so much desire. The problem with perfectionism (and ‘fixing’ generally) can be explained by using the idea of a tablecloth that has annoying wrinkles on it. We react to the wrinkles by smoothing a patch out, but by doing this we necessarily throw up more wrinkles somewhere else. These new wrinkles annoy us, and so we busily smooth them out, thereby creating more wrinkles again, and so on and so forth. It is possible to gain momentary satisfaction by focussing only on the smooth patch that we have cleared in front of us, but this too is ‘cheating’ really because we only get to feel good because we ignore that fact that successful smoothing always comes with a price. And, as always, when we ignore the price (or believe that we can escape paying it) we have to continue the game, because the game has no end…


There is one possibility that we have not so far mentioned, and that is the possibility of escaping from one game by distracting ourselves with another. I might be caught up in angry thoughts, and then distract myself by eating a cream doughnut. Basically, what I do is I find something more compulsive, or equally compulsive, and I substitute that compulsion for the old one. This is exactly like coming off a heroin addiction by switching to an alcohol addiction instead. Obviously, this is always a ‘false solution’ because the new compulsion is just as much a trap as the old one. However, if I take a narrow view, it is possible to feel relief or satisfaction because I am able to believe that I have in some way ‘moved on’.


Actually, this business of escaping a troublesome compulsion by over-riding it with another compulsion, which is swapping one game for another, is itself a game – it is just another level of game. On the first level, I believe that I can achieve success within the terms of the game. For example, if I am in the grip of perfectionism, then I believe that I can reach the ideal state of perfection in whatever it is that I am doing. As we said, this is a trap because, if I take the wider view, I will see that all I have done it to ‘pass the problem on’ to another part of the board. Earlier, we illustrated this idea in terms of a wrinkly tablecloth. Another way to illustrate it would be to say that it is like a Mobius strip, which the Cassel Paperback Dictionary defines as follows:

– a long, rectangular strip of paper twisted through 180 degrees and joined at the ends, to form a one-sided surface bounded by one continuous curve.

The Mobius strip is a ‘physical paradox’ – like all strips of paper, it has two surfaces, and yet with this particular strip of paper there is a twist because if you follow one face of the paper long enough you inevitably end up on the other, which obviously means that there is only one face really. Now, suppose that I am the sort of perfectionist who hates twists. Twists or bendy bits make me feel really annoyed and I have to fix them by ‘flattening them out’ by some means. Let us next suppose that my life consists of travelling around and around on the surface of a giant Mobius strip, which is, as the above definition tells us, one continuous curve. This curve or twist is really going to bug me and so I am going to have to flatten it. When I ‘iron out’ the kink in the area where I am sitting I am going to feel good- I am going to get a rush of satisfaction at having achieved ‘perfection’. However, all I have really done is to chase the kink to another location on the loop, and because I have to keep travelling around the loop (or strip), I will inevitably encounter an exacerbated kink a bit later on. The reason we say that the kink is ‘exacerbated’ is because when a part or section of the curve is flattened out, this naturally means that there must be increased curvature somewhere else on the loop to make up for it.


This story ought to be getting fairly familiar to us by now! What happens next is obvious. If a bit of a twist drove me cracked, then an exaggerated twist will drive me twice as cracked, and so when I encounter it I will redouble my efforts to straighten it out, and so the cycle of fixing will be set up all over again. There are two entirely different possibilities here:


[1] is when I persist in focussing only on the short-term gain, and ignoring the long-term cost. This involves me in an endless series of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ – I get an ‘up’ when I kid myself that I have fixed the problem, and I get a ‘down’ when I find that I have a new problem to deal with. What I don’t see is that I am engaged in an impossible task – all I am ever doing is driving the kink around and around the loop. The twisty bit cannot ever go away, it can never be banished. And yet, as long as I think I am getting somewhere, I will keep at it, never realizing that I have actually been totally swallowed up by a perfectly meaningless (or ‘circular’) task.


[2] is when I take a broader view and see as a result the impossible nature of what I am trying to achieve, and I therefore perceive the meaninglessness of what I am doing. I see as clearly as day that for every gain (or PLUS) I am bound to get a corresponding loss (or MINUS). I see that PLUS equals MINUS. This is ‘seeing through the game’. To see that I am attempting the impossible takes the guts out of the engine of automatic reacting, because in order to keep fuelling the engine I have to actually believe that I can obtain a [+] without incurring an equal and opposite [-] to cancel it out a bit later on. Even though the engine does not run out of steam straight away, seeing through the game is the beginning of the ‘winding down’ process by which the power of the automatic mechanism gradually dwindles away.


We were on the subject of ‘swapping one compulsion for another’. We started off by talking about the ‘first level of the game’, which we defined by saying that it is where we believe that we can obtain ultimate success within the terms of that game. Alternatively, we could say that the ‘first level’ is when we think that we can eradicate the ‘hidden paradox’ in the game (this is what Professor Carse calls the ‘contradictoriness of finite play’). The paradox is hidden because we just don’t see it, but it is of course still there just the same, as we can clearly see from the example of the Mobius strip. I just need to ‘pull back’ enough from my purposeful behaviour so that I can see what I am doing, and I will see it.


The second level of the game is where we swap one distraction for another, one game for another. When we think about it, we can of course see that this is exactly the same thing. We think that we can fix the problem this way, whereas all we are really doing is endlessly exchanging one problem for another. This is what ‘neurotic fixing’ is all about! What this shows, therefore, is that there is no way to ‘cure’ a compulsion on purpose, because ‘purposes’ are themselves compulsions, and you can’t cure compulsivity with yet more compulsivity. However sophisticated our game, our situation is essentially the same, which is to say, it is a dead-end which no amount of cleverness will free us from. The problem is insoluble, and so cleverness is not the answer.


What we are basically looking at here is a trap for consciousness. When we get caught up in a circle of thought (or a circle of behaviour), and believe that we are genuinely going somewhere when we are not, then our awareness has effectively been put in a prison. This is the most complete sort of a prison there could be, because we think we are actually free. We are ‘going nowhere for ever’. This is the state of psychological unconsciousness, where we are fully engaged in the pursuit of illusory progress, utterly distracted from the reality of our situation. To be genuinely free, we would first have to see the circle of thought within which we are trapped, we would have to see that we are eternally distracted in Taking A Trip To Nowhere. Freedom is, therefore, seeing through the trick, seeing the paradox. To put it most succinctly, believing that [+] doesn’t equal [-] is the state of unconsciousness, and seeing that [+] equals [-] is consciousness. These are the two possibilities: either we are trapped in the realm of illusion, which is when we are totally absorbed in thinking that we are getting real results when we are not, or we are free, which is when we see the illusion for what it is, and do not get pulled into it.


In a way, we could say that are two ingredients to unconsciousness. The first is the ‘illusion of progress’ that keeps leading us onwards, and the second is the sheer force of the compulsion that makes us want the progress. It is because of the force of the compulsion that we don’t examine the illusion too carefully – if it wasn’t there we would be so ‘stupid’. As we have been saying, there is no magic short cut for getting rid of this force, which is the momentum of the engine of automatic reacting. We cannot oppose this momentum, or deflect it, without adding to the momentum. Any reaction to it feeds it; any purposeful response at all feeds it, because goals are themselves compulsions.


The way to break into the closed circle of unconsciousness is not through purposeful action but through insight. In other words, we can’t do anything to (directly) slow down the momentum of automatic reacting, but we can puncture the ‘illusion of progress’, i.e. the belief that it is possible to free ourselves on purpose. When we have insight, the force of compulsion is still there, and we still find ourselves reacting to it, but by ‘seeing what is going on’ (i.e. seeing the trick) we are unconditionally accepting pain, and the fact that we are no longer allowing ourselves to believe in illusory progress as a means of escaping pain means that we are no longer fuelling the machine.


We have used various analogies to describe the engine of automatic reacting – one final analogy would be to say that it is like a huge iron wheel that is turning with apparently unstoppable momentum. Normally, our refusal to experience pain ensures that the wheel turns in a friction-free fashion, it ensures that the machine stays in perpetual motion. As soon as we puncture the illusion that we are actually getting somewhere by reacting, then there is friction. The momentum is being absorbed – the ‘insult’ is being swallowed, the blow is being allowed to land. The energy of the wheel, which is refused pain, is gradually transferred and as it is transferred the wheel slows, until eventually it comes to a complete halt and we are free. This is a long drawn out process, and it is a very major undertaking. Inevitably we wish for a quicker way, a faster result. Methods abound for ‘quick fixes’ and sometimes they seem to be working. The only problem is, when will we encounter the negativity that we have thrust somewhere, out of sight?


Paradoxically, it is the wheel itself that teaches us about the error of reacting against negativity. For the majority of us, the engine of automatic reacting is out of sight, somewhere below the surface, and so we have no way of knowing that it is there. We never draw the connection between positive gains we make and the periods of payback we go through, and so we never see the way in which our cleverness as avoiding pain only ever rebounds on us. And yet, when the wheel comes to the surface and visibly affects us, and we start to lose the illusion of the freedom we thought we had, then that is a blessing in disguise because it is only when the chains bite into our flesh. It is only when the rules (or limitations) that bind us and cause us as a result to keep going around in petty circles, start to cause us pain that we realize that we are not as free as we thought we were.


Between those who are aware of their bondage to the wheel of unconsciousness, and those who are not, there is a world of difference. When we are caught in the unforgiving jaws of neurotic torment, we find ourselves wishing that we could be in the shoes of someone who is not undergoing such trials. We try to live a normal life but we are frustrated at every turn, whereas everyone else just seems to sail straight ahead with no real problems. “Ignorance is bliss,” we say. And yet it is our very frustration that is giving us a valuable chance for freedom. What we can’t see is that the satisfaction of being successful within a game (for that is what unconsciousness is) is hollow. It is all appearance and no essence; success in the game looks good from the outside but when we obtain it the satisfaction soon evaporates leaving nothing but the craving for yet more ‘theatrical victories’.


For example, I might think that it must be great to achieve the social status of a chart-topping pop star, and look no further than this in my ambitions. But even if the million-to-one chance comes off and the dream comes true, the euphoria soon pales. When it comes right down to it, nothing has really changed! When I lie in bed at night with no one to tell me how great I am, I feel exactly the same as before. It is the same old ‘me’. Victory in a game is purely bogus, when it comes right down to it. Furthermore, what goes up must come down, and so the day will come when my special social status is revoked and I am just another person, just another face in the crowd. All I will have will be the dubious comfort of my memories. I might argue with this, and say that I don’t want to be a rock star, I just want to make something of myself and find happiness. Happiness cannot be found in a game however – momentary satisfaction, yes, the thrill of the chase, yes, but happiness, no. Happiness is itself paradoxical in this respect because when we try to deliberately obtain it our very ‘successes’ become our downfall. Happiness comes despite ourselves and our purposeful activity, not because; it is something that comes unexpectedly when we drop our agendas, our ideas about ‘what is important’.


In contrast to ‘attainments within a game’ (which have to be externally validated in order to mean anything), there is such a thing as real attainment, real change. The real task is for me to grow, to become the genuine individual that I potentially am, to win freedom from the easy but essentially meaningless life of psychological unconsciousness. Most of us are only potentially free. Even the great and the mighty are slaves to the hidden forces that determine their actions – imagining that they are calling the shots when in reality they only ever react. The president of the United States is as much a slave to his negative emotions as the guy who takes out the trash! And maybe he is more of a slave, if the guy who takes out the trash has worked on his self and has woken up to his unconsciousness. In the end, it is only internal freedom that is worth anything – all other attainments are phantoms, mere passing things. As G. I. Gurdjieff has said, we are all mere ‘reaction-machines’ until we break the spell and the power of the trance of unconsciousness. The ‘satisfaction’ (if we can use that word) that comes from radical transformation of the personality against all the odds, is real. No one is going to come along and pin a medal to our chest, there will be no mention of it in the papers. Yet because it is a real, and not a ‘theatrical’ change, it cannot be taken away from us. What we are saying here is not that practical (or ‘external’) attainments are pointless or unworthy of us, but that when we use them an excuse to avoid inner change, then we are thwarting our need to grow.


Deep down we know that life requires more from us than merely ‘fitting in with general expectations’ and doing well within the framework of meaning that has been handed to us by society. However, daunted by an unacknowledged fear of the hugeness of the true task in life, we seek fulfilment in petty gains and superficial victories. We ‘delight in the unreal’. We try to achieve a good feeling about ourselves by winning pointless contests. Success (or the attempt to achieve success) in games distracts us from the painful demand that life makes on us. If I ignore this demand the time will come when I will discover that through always focussing on improving my ability to ‘control what I know’, I have sold myself short.