Being Possessed By The Reactive Mind

‘Reactivity’ is a curse from which we all suffer to some degree or another. Something or other (an event or something someone says) happens and instantly I am plunged into an overwhelming emotional and/or physical reaction. All of a sudden I am ‘not myself’ – I am plunged into a negative state of mind and am likely to say or do things that are not characteristic at all of my normal self. This sort of dramatic ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ type transformation really is the stuff of everyday life and yet – at the same time – it is nevertheless a very strange sort of thing to happen. After all, I am myself and so how is it that I can turn into someone different at the drop of a hat? How is it that a kind, fair-minded and humorous person can turn into an unkind, unfair and utterly humourless caricature of themselves? It is no wonder that the ancients used to explain the more extreme and long-lasted examples of this phenomenon in terms of demonic possession.


Reactivity is so much a part of everyday life that we don’t really think very much of it. We could in fact take the position that to react to what goes on around us is the same thing as ‘having an emotional life’ – we could simply say that ‘reactions’ are the same as ‘emotions’ and that if we didn’t react we wouldn’t be properly human any more. This is probably what most people would say, if you stopped them on the street to ask their opinions about it. On the other hand, we could also take the position that it is our freedom from reactivity that makes us human. We could say that when a person has no capacity to be in a challenging situation without ‘automatically reacting’, then they are not properly human. After all, if what I feel and think and do is merely the mechanical result of an interaction between ‘trigger’ and ‘conditioned response’ then where do I come into all this? I don’t need to be there at all – and in fact I actually am not there. All that is there is the habitual response – the inflexible and terminally unreflectIve robot that I have elected and empowered to take over the job of running my life for me.



In a reaction there is no trace of an autonomous consciousness, no ‘I’ which is independent of the world around it. This is like a person who always agrees with the prevailing opinion, who always thinks the same way as his or her companions. If I always agree with the people around me then obviously my opinion is not worth a damn. After all, I am bound to be continuously contradicting myself since I may support a certain viewpoint right now and yet be totally against it ten minutes later, depending on who I am with. My position is not autonomous, it simply depends on what is going on around me, and so I might as well not be there at all. After all, I am not exactly adding anything different or new to the situation.  It is easy to understand this argument with regard to a person who only reflects the views of others but less easy to see how it relates to cognitive or emotional reactions. The point is that when I react I automatically lose my autonomous or independent consciousness, and become totally controlled by something that is imposed upon me from outside. I am controlled by external mechanical factors.



What I am being controlled by has – we might say – an interior and exterior aspect. On the one hand we could say that I am being controlled by external events. If things go well then I am a happy person, if things don’t go well I am an irritable and angry person. I am therefore a puppet, not a true individual at all. I have no ‘autonomy’. Or to take another example – if everyone says I am wonderful I feel good about myself but if people look down on me I feel very bad about myself. Again, I am nothing but a puppet, waiting for others to pull my strings. I am a helpless bit of flotsam, bobbing up and down on the waves of arbitrary public opinion. I am always allowing myself to be defined according to ‘external pressure’.



On the other hand, it could equally well be said that I am being controlled by the ‘internal pressure’ of my thinking, and the pressure that this thinking is putting me under. This is what is something called ‘like or dislike’ – my thoughts (or my ‘evaluations’) tell me that one thing is good and another is bad and so I am then under pressure to obtain the one and avoid the latter. We don’t usually perceive this as ‘pressure’ (or as ‘being controlled by our thinking’) because we don’t see any conflict there – it is only when our thinking directly causes us distress that we start to realize that our thinking functions more as a dictator than an obedient servant. It is our thinking that causes us to react instead of responding with intelligence and sensitivity and it is therefore our thinking which is responsible for perpetuating our ongoing state of pain and confusion. We don’t actually see ourselves to be in ‘a state of pain and confusion’ and herein lies our problem. We are convinced – for the most part – that it is possible to respond intelligently and sensitively on the basis of rational thought. Yet the thinking mind can never be sensitive; thoughts are not sensitive, concepts are not sensitive, so how can the rational/conceptual mind be sensitive?


Thoughts (or concepts) are like solid objects which have no flexibility to them – they are the shape that they are and that’s all there is to it. Our thoughts determine what the world looks like to us rather than vice versa; a particular thought, a particular concept will always make the world seem the same way! The thought or concept stays the same and we have to try to change the world to suit it. This is where the ‘like and dislike’ comes in – like and dislike is all about control and control is how we try to adjust the world (and ourselves) to our rigid or unchanging ideas about it. When like and dislike is all we know (which is the same as saying ‘when we have no actual sensitivity to things’) then we are forever trying to make the world be the way we think it ought to be and this spells nothing but suffering – naturally it spells nothing else but suffering since we are never going to succeed in this endeavour. And even if – hypothetically speaking – we were able to convert the world into a perfect copy of what we think it ought to be like, this would not be a good thing! Succeeding in getting things to be the way we think they should be (which is pure naked aggression) wouldn’t be a good thing because then the whole world would simply be an echo of our unexamined assumptions or prejudices and this would be a terribly hollow (or redundant) situation. That wouldn’t be ‘life’ so much as a horrible mockery of it…



Aggression always creates pain for us further down the line. ‘Reacting’ always creates pain for us further down the line – aggression and ‘reacting’ are one and the same thing. When we react we are ‘convulsively trying to get things to be the way that our thinking says they should be’. We are going all out to get things to be the way we think they should be because we are so threatened by the scenario of not being able to do so; if we can’t stay in control then this would be very frightening for us, very undesirable for us. It can be easily seen from the violent nature of our reactions that not succeeding in staying in control is simply unacceptable to us – not being able to change things in the way that we want to would be the worst thing ever and we cannot even bear to think about such a possibility. It is ‘bad’ and that’s all we know about it. The same thing goes for the desired outcome – the outcome that we are trying so convulsively to achieve is ‘good’ and that’s all we know about it. We’re not examining what we’re doing, we’re just doing it and that’s what reactivity is all about. It is when we get ‘taken over’ (or ‘possessed’) by mere mechanical impulses.



Reactivity doesn’t come from us, therefore – it comes from the thinking mind. The huge pressure we feel acting upon us, and causing us to do this or that before we even know what we are doing or why, has nothing whatsoever to do our own true nature. When we feel either very afraid or full of intense desire this has nothing to do with our own true nature; that is simply the ‘external mechanical factor’ either pushing us or pulling us. Our true nature shows itself when we are not being totally controlled by the thinking or reacting mind and it is marked by sensitivity rather than aggression. ‘Sensitivity’ is – we might say – the lack of mechanical aggression and the lack of mechanical aggression means that we are interested in the world for its own sake, rather than being interested in it for ‘what we might be able to do with it’, or ‘how we might be able to change it’. If I am sensitive to the world then I actually have a relationship with it; if I am sensitive to myself then straightaway I have a relationship with myself.  With aggression on the other hand there is never any relationship with anything – there is no relationship with the world and there is no relationship with myself! Aggression is a ‘terminal state of non-relatedness’ therefore and this is the state we find ourselves when all we know is reactivity.


Reactivity is a curse – it’s a curse because all it ever does is to cause us to suffer. Either we’re constantly struggling and straining to obtain something that doesn’t exist (but which is only a reflection of our own unexamined assumptions about the world) or we’re struggling and straining to avoid something that doesn’t really exist. What kind of a life is this, we might quite reasonable ask? Where is the dignity in this? And yet this is all we know, for the most part. Reactivity (or ‘like versus dislike’) is not seen for what it is by society – on the contrary, we are encouraged to act on the basis of mechanical attachment. This is what modern life is all about – being reactive, being insensitive, being psychologically unconscious. Anyone who doubts this need only look around at what is going on in the world.



Everyday life is all about playing the brutal and pointless game that we have been told we have to play and not ever asking ‘why’? This brutal and pointless game is what we call society, which is really nothing more than a system of mechanical (i.e. insensitive) interactions between human beings in which certain assumptions about what life is about get endlessly repeated. The mechanical versions of ‘who we think we are’ get promoted and rewarded, whilst any sign of the truth emerging is crushed underfoot. The ‘truth’ that we are talking about here is very easily explained – the truth that is constantly being covered up is that we are not who society says we are.  We are not who we are treated as being; we are not who are being pressurized to be! This is the most revolutionary understanding there is or ever could be, as Krishnamurti says.



Society (or ‘mechanical life’) is about one thing and one thing only – never examining what our assumptions about life are. If we were to examine our assumptions then everything would change all by itself – there would be no need for aggression, no need for violence. That’s the way true change always happens, after all. This type of spontaneous change is however the one thing we are simply not interested in…








Transforming Pain

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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