The Simplest Things

The simplest things are the hardest to speak of. When we’re talking about ‘approaches’ that we take in therapy or ‘models’ that we have in psychology we have no trouble in finding things to say – we find it very easy indeed to come out with all sorts of highfalutin jargon! In no time at all we evolve a whole jargon-heavy language, full of catch-phrases and buzz-words. Yet we’re not really saying anything really – we’re prattling. We’re intoxicating ourselves with our own spurious cleverness. If we were actually saying something real then it would be a lot harder and we wouldn’t be able to use other peoples’ catch phrases, tawdry generic language that we have ‘taken off the shelf’. That wouldn’t cut the mustard…

 

The reason we love models and approaches, catch-phrases and buzz-words so much is of course because it gives us an angle. We’re desperate for an angle! We’re stuck without one; we feel that we absolutely do need one. Without an angle, what are we going to do? How are we going to proceed? It’s seems natural and perfectly reasonable that we should be looking for an angle because we’re coming at things from the point of view of the rational mind and this is just another way of saying that ‘we’re coming at things from the POV of wanting to change or control what is going on’. If the person I am working with is depressed then I am looking for a way of getting them to be not depressed; if they are thinking in an anxious or self-recriminatory way then I am going to be trying to change this anxious or self-critical way of thinking, and so on. That’s pretty much my brief as a therapist, after all!

 

We need ‘an angle’ because our intention is somehow to manipulate the situation and manipulation or control is simply not possible without an angle. Control and manipulation are second nature to us; more than second nature, it very often seems as if this is the only nature we know. Control seems like the answer to everything when we are in mental pain and if you try to say that it isn’t people aren’t going to take any heed of you. We don’t want to suffer, obviously, and neither do we like to see others suffer but this doesn’t mean that trying to manipulate what is going on as soon as things start getting painful is a good thing to do! Far from being ‘the answer to everything’, control is actually the root cause of our woes. It only takes a little wisdom to see this. Even a little wisdom is generally beyond us however – we have bucket-loads of technical means in our culture but no wisdom! Or if we do have wisdom (because it’s out there somewhere) it is rarely to be found in our experts. Expertise doesn’t require wisdom – wisdom comes out of the broader view and – generally speaking – we just aren’t interested in ‘broadness’ or ‘width’ of vision.

 

The thing about control is that it always distances us from whatever it is that we are attempting to get the better of. When we bring in control this always puts us at odds with the world, it always introduces a very troublesome glitch into the system, which is odd because the whole point of control is that it is supposed to benefit us, not jinx us! The reason control always puts us at odds with the world (and not the world but ourselves) is because it disconnects us – it necessarily disconnects us (and no one can reasonably argue that it doesn’t!) because control can only ever be instigated as a result of our theories about the world, our abstract models of the world. So first we represent the world to ourselves in terms of a handful of spindly abstract concepts and then the next thing is that we charge ahead on this basis and interact with the world as if our abstract model wasn’t an abstract model at all but an infallible guide to what’s really going on out there! This isn’t a genuine interaction at all therefore but rather it’s a type of hamfisted bullying that is taking place on the basis of this bizarre misrepresentation – a type of bizarre misrepresentation that exists in our heads but nowhere else.

 

‘Control’ has its rightful domain of applicability but this is not the psychological domain! It has its rightful applicability within the realm of the ‘non-complex’ – if I have to put up a fence or build a shed or dig a hole in the ground that is of the right size and depth then this is where control is needed. If I am surgeon performing a laparotomy then this is also a case where very precise control is required, if the patient is to stand any chance at all of surviving! In all such cases we can come up with a formal theory that holds water and then apply it to ‘the real world’ but when it comes to psychological matters we cannot come up with any convenient theory or model. No theory has ever been found that has allowed effective psychological control to be exerted or applied, regardless of what the text books might say. Changes may be effected alright, but only at the cost of a ‘rebound’ that wipes out any advantage we might think we have gained. The reason no model (no model which ever yielded useful results) has ever been found is because the psyche isn’t a machine. The psyche (i.e. who we are) isn’t a machine and if it isn’t a machine (i.e. if it doesn’t obey the dictates of linear or predictable logic) then there is no way that we can ever possibly model it…

 

How could we ever think that how we are could be something we could understand, just as we understand the internal combustion engine or a printed circuit board? The thinking mind always assumes everything to be understandable (i.e. amenable to being represented in its own non-complex terms) because if it doesn’t do this then it would be cutting the ground away from under its own feet. Unless the thinking mind assumes a universe that is fundamentally understandable in terms of logic then it is making itself redundant, it is doing itself out of a job. It only works if everything is understandable – if we had a situation where parts of the universe were understandable but these parts were embedded in a deeper reality which is itself not understandable then this would mean that nothing was understandable, not really. If a thing is to make sense to the thinking mind then the whole universe, from top to bottom, has to make sense. Otherwise its position is lost. We can’t see it, but the thinking mind’s ultimate agenda is always to ‘hang in there’ and avoid the fate of being made redundant and for this reason it will never admit (it never can admit) that the world or the universe isn’t just some kind of machine, and that we aren’t – in our turn – just complicated units of biological machinery, even though this puts us in an utterly preposterous position. And there is no more preposterous position than the one we find ourselves in when we claim to understand something profound about ourselves on the basis of the so-called ‘science’ of psychology’.

 

The truth of the matter – which we are very keen indeed to deny (for no batter reason than our inability to see through the malign influence of the runaway rational mind, which cannot bear to be knocked off its pedestal – is that the universe is infinitely complex, just as we are, being as we are part and parcel of that universe. This is no disaster, this is no defeat, this is no terrible thing – it just means that we have to put up with the thinking mind no longer being ‘top dog’, no longer ‘ruling the roost’. It wasn’t doing a very good job anyway! As a result of seeing things clearly (which is something we have been steadfastly resisting at every turn) we have to ‘put up with’ no longer living in a world which is basically an exercise in accountancy, where we have to spend all our time trying to make sure that every single thing can be neatly accounted for. Instead, we have to live in a world which in its essential nature is more like a poem or a work of art than a neat row of numbers in a ledger (or on a spreadsheet). This is the hardship that we have to endure if we can bring ourselves to come around to dispensing with the dubious services of the rational intellect and accepting the actual non-logical nature of reality…

 

When we live in a world of poetry then cleverness is no good to us! As Rumi writes:

No better love than love with no object.

No more satisfying work than work with no purpose.

If you could give up tricks and cleverness,

that would be the cleverest trick!

This whole drive to be clever, to argue mysteries away, to systematize our understanding of the world, is simply us trying to make our concepts and models relevant when they’ aren’t. We’re trying to force everything to fit our conceptual slots because – since we’re coming at the world from the basis of the thinking mind – everything has to be about these slots. The bottom line is that we’re always struggling to make the rational faculty relevant when it isn’t. When we’re dealing with infinite complexity (i.e. infinite inter-connectedness) then any attempt to systematize just traps us in delusion – the only way not to be trapped in delusion is not to try to make sense of things! Even though it may sound contradictory to say it, when we’re dealing with great complexity, simplicity is what’s needed. Simplicity works because it resonates without trying – if something is simple enough then it is whole, and if it is whole then it resonates with everything else that is whole. By not trying to say too much we say it all!

 

This is why the sparse verses of the Tao Te Ching work so much better than all the weighty tomes of Western philosophy. It is as if in the West our response to the surpassing complexity of life is to complicate things as much as we can. We go down the wrong road – we go down the road of hyperrationality. We throw a whole mess of technical jargon at the problem, we invent a whole new kind of ‘speak’ that creates the illusion that we ‘know what we’re doing’. This technical language owes its existence to one thing and one thing only – the premise that it can actually enable us to do something about to help alleviate the mental pain and distress that our clients are suffering from. If the people we are dealing with are anxious then the language validates itself on the basis of its ability to ameliorate anxiety; if they are suffering from depression then the terminology gains prestige from its promise to banish effectively the shadow of depression from our clients’ lives, and so on. What else could excuse this ungainly mass of specialized terminology, which is quite lacking in aesthetic or poetic virtue in itself?

 

Traditionally however, all of our psychological situations have been addressed by something else entirely – by wisdom rather than cleverness. Wisdom has an entirely different character to cleverness – it doesn’t seek to create its own highly specialized vocabulary, for a start! Wisdom can express itself in the simplest of terms; it can express itself in language that can be understood by children, in fact. That’s how we know that it’s honest – this is where its power comes from, not in its ability to impress, intimidate, dazzle or intimidate people. If we come across some common human situation like anxiety and we respond to it by pulling a lot of neologisms out of our hat then all we have succeeded at is in alienating the sufferer from his or her own experience; in Ivan Illich’s words, cosmopolitan medical civilization takes the experience of being unwell (or in pain) out of our hands and makes it into the property of the mental health professionals. Only they have the power to say what our situation is, and to know what to do about it, and their language is both controlling and jinxed.  [As we have already said, ‘Controlling’ and ‘jinxed’ go together when it comes to mental health!]

 

Anxiety (to to use this one example) isn’t what the medical authorities say it is, however. It isn’t something that needs to be understood in terms of some frame of reference that doesn’t belong to us, and which we are actually excluded from understanding because we haven’t had the appropriate training or education. If I am suffering from anxiety then ‘what it is’ is necessarily my own subjective experience of it; there’s nothing else it could be – anxiety isn’t something that exists ‘in the abstract’! It isn’t at all what you –with your technical terminology – frame it as being…Anxiety is actually a very simple thing – anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety knows what it is. Anxiety is the experience of anxiety and this is where the ‘answer’ (so to speak) lies – not in someone else’s complicated theories of it! Anxiety is not at all a technical matter, in other words – it can’t be transposed into some other (highly arcane) sphere, it can’t be converted into some riddle or problem to be solved.

 

The ‘answer’ – if we may continue to use that word – lies exactly in our subjective experience of what’s going on, not in some abstract, mind-moderated formulation or theory of it. In the simplest of terms, where we are when we’re suffering from anxiety is a very difficult place to be and the ‘answer’ is simply for us to be able to be there without feeling that we need to escape, without constantly feeling that we need to ‘press the eject button’. This could easily become a type of a theory but it isn’t – it’s an intuitive understanding of the situation we’re in. Furthermore, it is our understanding and not one else’s. What makes anxiety different from the everyday ‘non-anxious’ experience of being in the world is simply that in the non-anxious state of mind we somehow have the ability to avoid the existential challenge that lies in the present moment and so – because we always have the option of escaping – we don’t get anxious, even though anxiety is latent in our situation. We are constantly escaping without knowing that we are escaping (because not knowing that we are escaping is an essential part of the escaping) and so we perceive ourselves as not being anxious. Anxiety – in this case – can be linked with the failure of the mechanism which facilitates our imaginary escaping from the demand that ‘being present’ places upon us! Or to put this another way, it is because we can no longer flee reality with impunity that we are feeling anxious…

 

Anxiety – we might therefore say – is where we keep on trying to flee (or ‘solve the problem’) but can’t and this is where the suffering comes in. We trying to do something that we can’t do. Our comfort zones have failed us and so we now have to deal with the difficulty of being present in our own life without any of the usual convenient escape routes. The drug of escaping (and not being present in our own lives) is no longer available to us and so now we’re going ‘cold-turkey’ – anxiety is as simple as this. How then can the clever talk of some accredited clinical expert help us if this is the case? It is more than likely that their role of ‘clinical expert’ represents nothing more than their escape from being present in the reality of their own life – there are no experts when it comes to the question of ‘how to live life’, after all! No one can be an expert at being their own true self…..

 

There is no jargon for being present. There are no models, no theories. This is not something that someone else can advise us on  – just as Walt Whitman says in his poem Song of Myself that no one can ‘walk that road’ for us, so too must it be the case that no one can ‘be present’ for us. Being present in the actual reality of our own lives is the simplest thing there is, yet no one can describe it, nor tell us how to ‘do’ it….

 

 

 

 

 

We Are ‘Relief-Seeking Mechanisms’

cyborg1

The best way to get a handle on the idea of ‘psychological work’ is to understand what it is not, and what it is not is our normal everyday mode of mental functioning! This ‘everyday mental modality’ – which is generally the only mode we have – can be neatly explained by saying that it is all about obtaining relief. This is not a particularly flattering way to understand ourselves but it is nevertheless a very accurate one. Despite any illusions we might have to the contrary, it doesn’t take very much at all to understand ‘what makes us tick’. Basically, the fundamental underlying motivation for our purposeful (as opposed to spontaneous) behaviour is the non-negotiable need to find relief from difficulty or discomfort.

 

It is this very simple motive that lies behind all of our purposeful or goal-orientated behaviour, and behind all our rational thinking. If I am busy performing actions, then what lies behind my busy-ness is the need to find relief and if I am busy thinking then what lies this busy-ness is also the need to find relief (in the case of thinking I am trying to find relief by analysing or problem-solving).

 

We don’t like to know this about ourselves and it is this resistance to seeing the less-than-glamorous truth that is the first obstacle to genuine self-understanding. We like to think that we are more complex, more diverse than simple pain-avoidance machines, mechanisms which are driven by nothing more interesting or heroic or inspirational than the need ‘not to challenge ourselves anymore than we can possibly avoid’.

 

This motivation is sometimes called the motivation of attachment and attachment covers both attraction (positive desire) and aversion (negative desire). In essence both attraction and aversion come down to ‘the need to seek relief from discomfort’ – when I am experiencing attraction it is difficult to be in the place where I haven’t yet obtained what I want to obtain and therefore the way that I look for relief from this demand is to try as hard as I can to succeed at obtaining whatever it is that I am experiencing attraction towards. I am automatically running away from the challenge of ‘doing the hard thing’ which is ‘not achieving the desired outcome’. When I experience aversion the same thing is true – some difficulty or discomfort is impinging upon me and the only way I can find relief is to somehow escape that difficulty. The hard thing in attraction is ‘not chasing’  or ‘not grasping’ and the hard thing in aversion is ‘not running away’, ‘not avoiding’.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it, what this means is that we are – for 99% of the time – no more than mere ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’. We don’t do anything for any higher purpose than self-interest although in order to protect our image of ourselves we dignify this self-serving activity by coming up with all sorts of validations for what we’re doing. We find some sort of reason for doing it, for going along with it. We say that we want to be doing whatever it is that we’re doing. We say that what we’re doing is ‘the right thing’, or ‘the good thing’.

 

As ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’ free will is a complete and utter illusion – our only freedom is the freedom to find the relief that we are so humourlessly seeking! When we express things like this it does not sound like a particularly convincing (or very enjoyable) form of freedom but when we’re actually stuck in the position of needing the relief (or rather feeling that we need the freedom) the freedom to obtain relief (whether it genuinely is freedom or not, or genuinely is enjoyable or not) is the only thing we’re actually interested in. As a ‘relief-seeking mechanism’, I really am not interested in anything else. Not only am I not interested in anything else, I’m not actually capable of understanding anything else. Can a machine be expected to understand anything or have appreciation of anything that in no way relates to its functional repertory?

 

This of course is fine and we can all grasp the above point perfectly well – the thing we can’t grasp however is why it should be the case that our psychology(when seen stripped of all the superfluous notions with which we like to cloak ourselves) should be that of a mere ‘relief-seeking mechanism. This, we can’t grasp at all! We don’t actually want to grasp it, in fact it could be said that our whole way of seeing things is orientated in such a way that we never do run the risk of seeing anything of the sort. We see things backwards – we see our constant looking for relief as something positive, we see it as the most wonderful expression of our own true volition, when the less-than-wonderful truth of the matter is that we’re simply looking for relief, in whatever way we can…

 

This of course sounds too ridiculous to us to even consider (we won’t consider it) and yet at the same time once we ‘get it’ it all becomes laughably obvious. We would wonder how on earth we didn’t see it before. We would wonder how we could have missed it, how we could have been so blind. The ‘trick’ is that everything has been turned upside down – everything we want to achieve we really only want to achieve as a release, and yet we see it as our own free will. We see the ‘achievement’ as an actual positive value in itself and this ‘reversed perception’ is what conditioned existence is all about – we fondly imagine that we are doing this, that or the other because we want to whereas the truth of the matter is that we have been conditioned to want to and this isn’t the same thing at all. Wanting something because you have been conditioned to want it is not just ‘not the same thing’ as genuine volition – it’s the complete antithesis of it.

 

All of the things we want, all of our ‘goals’ are simply ‘whatever we need to do in order to find (temporary) release from whatever pressure is acting upon us. We want the release from pressure that achieving the designated goal will bring rather than wanting the goal itself, but rather than seeing this we see it the other way around. We’re chasing ‘escapes from the pain we’re in’ not the things themselves; we’re pursuing ‘what the goal represents to us’ rather than the goals themselves. When we ‘do the thing’ (or ‘achieve the goal’) we feel good and so if we take a superficial view of this (as we do) it can very easily seem to us that it’s the fulfilment of our purpose that we want when actually it’s the good feeling that we get as a result of fulfilling it that we’re after. And of course it’s not just that ‘it could very easily seem’ that it’s the fulfilment of our goal/purpose that all the excitement’s about, it does seem that way to us. Our psychological makeup is such that that all our attention is directed onto what is going on ‘on the outside’ so that we don’t notice the mechanical processes that are going ‘in the background’. We don’t notice the pressure that’s acting on us, we just notice the relief that comes when there is a (temporary) cessation of this pressure and this manifests as ‘satisfaction’ or ‘pleasure’. Genuine volition is never to seek pleasure or satisfaction! How could it be? This ought to be obvious to us (how could it not be?) and yet it isn’t at all obvious. We know it isn’t obvious by virtue of the fact that no one ever sees it!

 

We don’t see that moving towards pleasure or satisfaction is a ‘down-hill’ (or ‘equilibrium-seeking’) movement – it is a purely mechanical process just like a tightly-wound steel spring unwinding and driving a system of cogs and wheels, just like a marble running down a wooden chute. This ‘purely mechanical process’ is not volition! Volition isn’t when we go along with the mechanical process; it isn’t when we work towards obtaining relief / pleasure / satisfaction. True volition is on the contrary when we don’t do this! Genuine volition is not (and never could be) about achieving goals. That’s just going along with the system of thought’ and the system of thought is mechanical through and through – there’s nothing ‘non-mechanical’ about it at all. What’s not mechanical about logic, after all? Yet to say that ‘true volition is not about achieving (or trying to achieve) goals is profoundly baffling to us. To say that this statement ‘goes against the grain of our everyday understanding’ is an understatement of epic proportions. We can’t figure this out at all. We might try to figure it out – if pressed – but we will still end up getting it wrong. If we say that trying to obtain pleasure or satisfaction is not genuine volition and that finding our genuine volition is the only thing that will free us from our wretched mechanical predicament then we will of course try to go against our mechanical impulses. We will try to oppose them but then this too is ‘mechanical’. Going against the mechanical impulses is still mechanical because all we have done is to swap one goal for another; we’ve switched goals but we’re still ‘looking for relief’ no matter what our goal might be. After all, all goals are ‘looking for relief’! We’re trying to get the system of thought to validate us, to validate what we’re doing. We’re trying to accord with some sort of logic. All we’ve really done is to switch a minus for a plus but NO equals the system of thought just as much as YES does!

 

So when we fight against mechanical impulses all we’re really doing is reversing the goal from a positive to a negative. Whatever the rational-logical mind presents us with as ‘a good idea’ is (of course) only ever going to be ‘just another goal’. Anything thought presents us with is a goal (or an anti-goal, which is the same thing. anything thought presents us with is always going to ‘definite’ and ‘definite’ – of any type or description whatsoever – always equals the system of thought. So what we’re essentially saying here is that the thinking mind can only ever provide us with ‘escapes’ from some kind of difficulty or challenge, and yet these escapes’ aren’t real. They aren’t real because thought itself isn’t real – thought is a system of abstractions. Thought presents us with escapes from discomfort / pain / fear, all of which have to do with our relationship (or rather lack of relationship!) with radical uncertainty, which is the unconditioned or uncreated reality; it presents us with ‘opt outs’ from reality which it calls ‘solutions’ or ‘answers’ or ‘goals’ – words which sound inspiringly positive to us! But no matter how positively we view these words, they are only ever ways of talking about ‘obeying the compulsion to escape’. It’s only fear-driven ‘relief-seeking’ we’re on about and there’s nothing particularly inspirational about this – we’re not heroes, no matter what we’d like to think! All we’re doing is ‘glorifying our running away’; all we’re doing is seeing ‘obeying compulsions’ as freely doing what we really and truly want to do.

 

So what we’re essentially saying here is that the thinking mind is no help to us at all with regard to psychological work. It always points us in the wrong direction. The rational mind is as we have said essentially a ‘relief-seeking mechanism’ and to the extent that we are identified with the rational mind so are we. This is why we are ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’ – because we’re identified with the everyday thinking mind. As soon as we have this insight everything that we have so far been talking about immediately becomes clear. Everything can then be seen in the most beautifully simple and straightforward way – we can see that psychological work is when we are NOT acting on the basis of thought!

 

This proposition is at the same time both wonderfully simple and formidably challenging – all we have to ‘do’ in order not to be evading reality (even though it is of course not a ‘doing’) is to be in the world independently, standing on our own two feet (as it were), as we actually are in ourselves, without any artifice, without any cunning. What could be simpler than this? Any child could do this! And yet this proves to be the hardest thing of all; as simple as it is, to just be ourselves without any artifice turns out to the greatest challenge we will ever meet in our lives. We don’t know how to come out of the constricting shell of the thinking mind even if we wanted to do so, even if we realized that we were trapped in this ‘shell’ (which we don’t). We do everything on the basis of thought, oPyschn the basis of the thinking mind. We live our lives pretty much entirely on this basis and because we do live our lives this way – minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year after year – we don’t even know that there is ‘a basis’. We couldn’t be further from knowing that there is a mechanical basis to our living, to our being in the world. We don’t think we’re playing any sort of a game, we think that we’re ‘doing it straight’! We think that there’s no trickery going on, that there’s no manipulation – that this is just ‘the way things are’.

 

We’re tricky creatures. We’re ‘trick-loving creatures’ and thought is our trick! We have become inseparable from our trick – we are playing it all the time without knowing that we are playing it. To be separated from the trick that we are playing (without knowing we are playing it) would be the ultimately terrifying scenario for us. All of our fear and terrors come down to ontological terror in the end – lack of ontological security is the one thing that we never want to face. Anything rather than that! When our own trickiness catches up with us – as it always does – and constricts the very life out of us, we do our level best to come up with new, improved forms of trickery and we call this ‘therapy’!  We do our level best to come up with new, super-sophisticated tricks to solve the problems that our original reliance on trickery has caused. It’s trickery on top of trickery, trickery trying to solve trickery. We think that cleverness is the answer. The one thing that we just can’t seem to see – to paraphrase Rumi is that when we give up tricks and cleverness, then that will be our cleverest trick!

 

 

 

 

 

The Good Mind

boddhisattva-of-compassion

According to Tibetan Buddhism we each have two minds – the good mind and the bad one. As simplistic as this may sound, this turns out to be a far more helpful psychological model than anything we in the West have come up with. It is ‘helpful’ in the sense that the thorough understanding of the principle actually makes us happy! Whatever else Western psychology may do for us, it certainly doesn’t ever do this. Whatever else we as a culture might be experts in, we are most definitely not ‘experts’ in being happy…

 

The good mind is so-called because its use creates happiness, whilst the bad mind is called ‘bad’ because it unfailingly creates suffering – both for ourselves and others. If we use one mind we move in the direction of becoming happier and more peaceful; if we use the other then we head inexorably (like a self-guiding homing device) into a world of ever-increasing misery. The key thing to grasp therefore is what constitutes the ‘good mind’ and how is it different from the bad mind? The answer given by Tibetan Buddhism is that when we think about how we can benefit other beings this is ‘the good mind’ and when we are concerned with how we can benefit ourselves then this is ‘the bad mind’.

 

This is not a question of morality however, no matter how it may sound. It tends to sound – to our Western ears – like “You should be unselfish rather than selfish” or “You should try to be better people” which is the stale old message that we in the Western world have been receiving for the last two thousand years. The basic Christian message – as it was very unambiguously preached from the pulpit in times past – was that if we are good we will go to heaven and if we are bad we will go to the other place, the place where things are not so much fun, the place where the devil will be sticking a red-hot pitch-fork up your ass. The Christian mystics didn’t say this, but the rank and file clergy most certainly did, and it was the clergy we listened to. This message sound very similar to what we have just said about the good mind leading us to happiness and the bad mind leading us straight into a morass of unendurable misery but it is not the same thing at all. One is a ‘moral message’, the other simply an observation…

 

The point is (the point that we so easily miss) is that it is only ‘the bad mind’ that wants to be good and go to heaven! Of course it is the bad mind that wants to be good and go to heaven because it is the bad mind that is all concerned with benefitting oneself. This is what this mind does the whole time, after all! Whenever I say “I should do this” or “I should do that” this is always about the mind that is trying to benefit itself. It is always this mind that is behind such statements. If I do what I ‘should’ do then this will bring benefit to myself and – on the other hand – I fail to do what I ought to do then this failure will be very much to my detriment. This type of crude ‘carrot and stick’ business is the stock in trade of the bad mind, the self-cherishing mind. Clearly this type of motivation is based upon self-interest – I am greedy for the prize and scared of the lash, and this is therefore all about me. We could also say that this type of motivation is all about fear, which means that the ‘bad mind’ is the mind that is secretly ruled by fear. It is the fearful mind that cannot admit the reality of its own fear to itself.

 

Compassion (or loving-kindness) has nothing to do with ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ however. How can we say “You should be compassionate” – that sounds wrong as soon as we say it. It sounds wrong as soon as we say it because it’s a non-compassionate statement! Essentially, I’m blaming myself (or the other person) for not being compassionate and blaming is the bad mind in action… As far as compassion is concerned, ‘should’ doesn’t come into it – if it does come into it then this jinxes everything, it effectively prevents compassion from arising. We have started off on the wrong foot and so it’s all going to be down-hill from this point onwards. The self-centred mind can’t tap into the compassionate mind to further its own ends – that’s just not the way things work. Compassion happens all by itself if it is given the space to do so – it doesn’t need to be egged on or cajoled by the moralistic self-centred mind…

 

This is our basic problem in the West – in our culture everything comes out of thinking and anything that doesn’t come out of thinking gets very quickly assimilated by the rational mind. We don’t really believe in anything in the West unless it can be checked up and verified by the thinking mind, unless the thinking mind is satisfied as to its credentials. When we talk about compassion we do so in an intellectual way; we’re using the well-oiled rational mind to say cogent things about it, to explain what it is and how it works. Compassion isn’t something we think about, or write academic articles about – it’s something we do. It has to do with the way we actually are. It goes beyond any logical framework.

 

There is no logical reason for compassion or ‘other-centeredness’ – it as we have said not something that can come out of a rational agenda. On the contrary, it is something that arises all by itself just as soon as we shake ourselves free from the small, self-contained world of the thinking mind. Life itself arises all by itself once rationality withdraws from centre stage – if this were not so then we could have ‘an agenda to live’ and what could be more ridiculous than this? Having an agenda to live life is the very thing that stands in the way of life; having an agenda to live life blocks everything because life can’t come out of thinking. We can live and then think – which is to say, thought can follow in the footsteps of life but it can’t precede it. Life is always bigger than what we think about it, in other words.

 

The point is that we can’t ‘make it happen’ just because we want it to, just because we think it would be a good thing for it to. As Jung says, we can’t control the psyche – we can’t switch it on or off to suit us. This is however very much at odds with our Western way of looking at things – we are forever talking about managing emotions, managing anxiety or anger or self-destructive behaviour but there is no managing the psyche. That’s putting the cart before the horse, that’s the tail wagging the dog! If we push the problem down in one place it’s simply going to pop up somewhere else, and we can go on playing this game forever. “Management” is completely the wrong approach, completely the wrong way to be looking at things…

 

Management is control and control is aggression and all of these terms are ways of talking about the ‘bad mind’, the mind which creates suffering just like the internal combustion engine creates exhaust fumes. The ‘bad mind’ is the conservative mind – the mind which is at all times wholly and completely dedicated to preserving and promoting the existing structure, the existing system. This is the mind that is forever fixated upon the task of protecting its core assumptions – the core assumptions that its very existence is based on – which comes down to stating them and re-stating them in lots of different way, but never questioning them. James Carse calls this ‘playing the finite game’, i.e. ‘playing so cleverly that one will never be taken by surprise’. The whole ethos of control is conservative – control is about protecting our core position, our core beliefs. If the bottom line of everything we do wasn’t about protecting our core position at any cost then we would be interacting with the world (and other people) in a totally different way. We would in this case be genuinely interested in the world, genuinely interested in other people, rather than only being interested in how we may best exploit it / them. These two approaches (the ‘explorative’ and the ‘conservative’ approaches) are mutually incompatible for the simple reason that if we become genuinely interested in the world or other people then we run the risk of jeopardizing the thing that we are trying to conserve. This is not a risk that the conservative mind ever wishes to take!

 

When we talk – as we always do talk – in terms of ‘management’, in terms of ‘tools’ and ‘skills’, in terms of ‘methods’ and ‘techniques’, we are always talking about being aggressive. This aggression is inherent in the nature of the conservative mind. Finite game playing is inherently aggressive…. Compassion – or ‘other-directedness’ – isn’t a tool, isn’t a skill, isn’t a strategy or management technique. It isn’t yet another form of ‘hanging on to what we already have (or rather, what we mistakenly believe ourselves to already have). Rather, it is the expression of our true nature. Compassion is the spontaneous expression of who we really are, which is something that our rational way of living has distanced us from, disconnected us from. Disconnected from who we really are, how are we ever going to be happy or at peace?  The very reason we placed all our trust in control and manipulation, in strategies and methods, is because we are disconnected from who we really are, and are trying in an unconscious way to ‘get ourselves back’. We don’t know that this is what we are doing, we don’t know that this is the reason for all our striving, all our driven ‘grasping-type’ behaviour, but it is. As Rumi says,

All the hopes, desires, loves, and affections that people have for different things – fathers, mothers, friends, heavens, the earth, palaces, sciences, works, food, drink – the saint knows that these are desires for God and that these things are veils. When men leave this world and see the King without these veils, then they will know that all were veils and coverings, that the object of their desire was in reality that One Thing… They will see all things face to face.

When we think about other people, concern ourselves with other people, act for the genuine benefit of other people (instead of what the conservative mind says is for their benefit) then we are tapping into our true nature. Otherwise we’re not. To be genuinely interested in others is the same thing as being compassionate – it’s only when our outlook is closed, when we are guarding our beliefs, that we cannot be compassionate. In this case we cannot afford to be compassionate. That door is closed. The door to our true self is closed and what this means is that we are buying into the ‘suffering-producing mind’, which Philip K Dick calls ‘service in error’. Chapter 35 in the Dao De Ching says,

He who holds the great sign
Attracts a great following.
He who helps the followers avoid harm
Enjoys great peace.
Music and good food can stop passers-by on their way.
The Dao, on the contrary, offers only a bland taste.
It can hardly be seen or heard.
Yet if one uses it, it is inexhaustible.

The Dao (or ‘the Way’) is of course another way of talking about our essential nature – how could our essential nature not be the way? And by the same token, how could what is not our true nature be any sort of a ‘way’ at all? When we draw upon our essential nature (which cannot be presented and re-presented as an image can be, or talked about as a concept can be talked about) our strength in inexhaustible. There is nothing we can’t do – the Dao is the source of all energy, all intelligence, all strength in the universe. When we call upon our true nature then we don’t need to be clever, to be conniving, to be an expert in the ways of manipulating the world or other people. We don’t need to be aggressive or controlling – we only need that bag of tricks when we don’t know who we are, which is when we are identified with the false, mind-created self, which has no strength or genuine intelligence in it at all. All it has is its ‘trickiness,’ its reflex-type cunning….

 

Once we see this then we can see straight way that we have gone wrong in the West with all our psychological techniques, skills at ‘self-soothing or self-calming’, our so-called ‘evidence-based’ methods of getting the result we want, the standardized result we are told we should want. Our approach is exclusively directed towards ‘saving the mind-created self’, rescuing the conservative or ‘finite game-playing’ self from the consequences of its activities. This is always the agenda of official psychotherapy. As a culture we’re caught up in playing what we might call ‘an infinite delaying game’ – we putting off the inevitable consequences of following what in Tibetan Buddhism is called the ‘bad mind’ for as long as possible. We’re pretending to ourselves that the path we’re on isn’t going to end in disaster – both collectively and individually. Essentially – in our blindness – we are trying to ‘have our cake and eat it’. We want to carry on playing our games and yet somehow be free from the suffering that comes about as a result of doing this. Or as Anthony de Mello puts it,

Most people tell you they want to get out of kindergarten, but don’t believe them. Don’t believe them! All they want you to do is to mend their broken toys. “Give me back my wife. Give me back my job. Give me back my money. Give me back my reputation, my success.” This is what they want; they want their toys replaced. That’s all. Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. What they want is relief; a cure is painful.

The whole of society, our whole way of life, exists for the benefit of the mind-created self (or ‘I-concept’) – it is all is geared towards the development, elaboration and consolidation of this particular suffering-producing illusion. Nothing we do has anything to do with happiness, therefore. Happiness is not an option when our primary (if unacknowledged!) aim is to preserve our core assumptions at any cost. Our over-riding concern is with the creation and maintenance of a two-dimensional image of ourselves, a generic concept of ourselves, an idea of ‘who we are’ that doesn’t actually exist. If we wanted to know (which we don’t!) what the whole show is about, what all this ceaseless frenetic aggressive busy-ness is about, then this is it! All of our ‘education’, all of our knowledge, all of our expertise, all of our technology – our entire way of life in fact – is geared towards promoting and perpetuating this suffering producing fiction of ‘who the rational mind says we are’.

 

Happiness is of no interest to us at all therefore, no matter what we might say, no matter what we might claim. How could it be when in order to be happy we would have to let go of the mind-created, fear-driven self and its sterile, narcissistic games?

 

 

 

 

The Secret of Transformation

 

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The secret of transformation is to be where we don’t want to be. This – needless to say – isn’t necessarily how we would usually see it. Usually we have an idea of how we’d like to be and then we set out with all due determination on the path to be this way, which isn’t the same thing at all. That is ‘working towards a goal’ and ‘being where we don’t want to be’ isn’t in anything to do with goals –working towards a goal is trying to be where we DO what to be, obviously!

 

‘Being where we don’t want to be’ is easy to say, and simple to understand, but it is another thing again to put into practice. The fundamental principle of our conditioned mode of being is that we are always straining to move from where we don’t want to be to where we do want to be and there is nothing we can do to change this. Just as long as we are in the conditioned mode of being, we will be trying to ‘improve our situation’ in everything we do, and – strange as it might sound – trying to improve our situation has nothing whatsoever to do with self-transformation. It is in fact the very antithesis of transformation – that’s simply us doing what we always do!

 

The very essence of the mechanical impulse that rules us when we’re in the conditioned mode of being is to move away from pain, move away from discomfort. It has no capability to do anything else! Whatever we do when we’re in conditioned mode we do by utilizing this mechanical aspect of ourselves – it is our OS, our ‘Operating System’ – and so no matter what it is that we are trying to do we will be trying to do via the logic of ‘aversion / attraction’, via the logic of ‘moving away from the unwanted situation and towards the desired one’. So what this means is that no matter how hard we try to figure a way around it we are never going to be able to deliberately ‘be where we don’t want to be’. This is – as a moment’s reflection will show – the supreme impossibility as far as the conditioned or mechanical modality of being is concerned…

 

The ‘mechanical approach’ just won’t work for this. If I find myself having an aversion to being in a particular place and I make a goal of being in this place (if I ‘force myself to feel the pain’, in other words) then all I have done is switch things around on myself. Now, to be ‘NOT feeling the pain’ is the place where I don’t want to be and so I am busy fleeing from this place! There’s nothing new about this state of affairs – I am after all always fleeing from the place where I don’t want to be. Or suppose – just to give another example of the impossibility that we are talking about here – that I am not able to accept myself as I am, that I hate myself being the way that I am, and so I am trying to turn this situation around so that I can accept myself, so that I don’t experience this aversion to myself. In this case what I am doing therefore is trying to escape from the pain of hating myself, I am trying to get away from ‘the pain of not being able to live with myself’. I am ‘hating the fact that I hate myself’, and so again, nothing has changed. I am still averse to one thing and attracted to the other. Attraction / aversion is still the principle that is guiding my actions; the only thing that’s changed is that I’ve switched the polarity around. As always, I am running away from what I don’t like!

 

What we’re basically saying here is something very obvious. We’re saying that when we orientate ourselves towards the attainment of a goal we are running away from what we don’t like. If we try to turn this around so that we AREN’T running away from what we don’t like then of course all we are doing is ‘running away from our running away’. We have made ‘not running away’ into our new goal and so we are still trying to get away from the place we don’t want to be in. That’s all we ever do – this is (of course) the basis of all goal-orientated activity. My goal is my ‘escape’, my ‘comfort zone’. And if I try to get clever about things and say that I don’t want to escape, that I don’t want to be forever chasing after convenient comfort zones to hide in, then this is simply me trying to escape from the actual reality of my situation. ‘Not having a comfort zone’ is in this case my new comfort zone!

 

Because the mechanical side of ourselves can’t do anything without first making a goal of it, there is no way that it can ever do genuine psychological work. It automatically makes ‘not having a goal’ into a goal. There is no way that the mechanical side or aspect of ourselves can’t turn ‘not having a goal’ into a goal – as we have said, it can only function on the basis of goals. ‘Psychological work’ – we might say – means being wherever you are without having a gaol to be either there or to be not there. This is something we simply can’t do on the basis of our OS – this is the one thing the OS can’t ever do! Not in a million years can the OS ever arrange for us to be somewhere without first having a goal for us to be there. Not in a million years can we ever do psychological work on the basis of our mechanical operating system…

 

What this means – in very simple terms – is that the mechanical self can never ever transform itself. This is an absolutely crucial understanding – it is also an understanding that we are fundamentally resistant to getting anywhere close to. It’s the one thing we don’t ever want to hear. Society itself colludes in the deluded idea that we can transform ourselves on purpose, in accordance with some method or other. Wherever we go we are bombarded with mechanical recipes for change – the self-help section of the high-street bookshop is (of course) crammed with ideas of great stuff we can do to change ourselves. As a culture we are absolutely fixated upon the belief that it must be possible to transform ourselves in a logical/purposeful fashion, if only we can hit upon the right method. ‘Hope springs eternal to the human breast’, as they say, but this is very far from being a good thing! On the contrary, this tendency to go on hoping is an indication of our perennial willingness to go on fooling ourselves, our perennial willingness to go on avoiding the truth…

 

With regard to self-help books and self-development courses and ‘self-change’ therapies we would much rather go on deceiving ourselves for ever, deceiving ourselves until hell freezes over, until pigs learn to fly in formation, until multinational corporations start taking a genuine interest in the well-being of their customers, rather than see the truth! On one level we can observe that this is a deeply perverse manifestation of human nature but on another level we can also observe that this isn’t so perverse at all but rather that there is a very understandable logic to this commitment to self-deception on a grand scale. The point is that we aren’t ourselves – we are ‘something else’ and this ‘something else’ has absolutely zero interest in changing its nature, no matter what it might say, no matter what it might persuade us to believe. This ‘something else’ is what we have been calling ‘the mechanical side of ourselves’, which is not really ourselves at all. In the conditioned modality of being we are totally identified with this ‘mechanical side of ourselves’ – we are absolutely convinced that ‘this is who we are’. We couldn’t be more convinced, in fact…

 

The ‘mechanical side of ourselves’ is also known as the thinking mind. The illusion that we are suffering under is the illusion that we are who we think we are! And yet whatever it is that we think we are, this is guaranteed to be nothing more than ‘yet another generic construct of the thinking mind’ and the thinking mind is only a dead mechanical system. It can’t be otherwise. There’s no life in the thinking mind, no spark in it, any more than there is life (or ‘a spark’) in a bureaucracy (or in a government, or in a multinational corporations). Logical systems aren’t living things – they are the antithesis of living things. These are all mere mechanisms. They are dead things. The thinking mind is a mere mechanism, a mere ‘dead thing’, no matter how much we may exalt it.  As Carlos Castaneda says in The Active Side of Infinity, (1996, P 147) –

Classifications have a world of their own,” he continued. “After you begin to classify anything, the classification becomes alive and it rules you. But since classifications never started as energy-giving affairs, they always remain like dead logs. They are not trees, they are merely logs.

The human predicament is – and always has been – that we place ourselves under the power of dead things. We let our classifications rule us. This is what we do. We place ourselves under the power of the thinking mind and its systems. We let it define everything about us and how much more power could we give it than this?

 

The consequence of being identified with the thinking mind is that we are forever running, forever trying to escape something, forever trying to gain something. And the whole time we don’t really know what it is that we’re trying to escape from, any more than we know what it is that we’re trying to gain. Even when we’re not running away we’re running away – we’re running away by deceiving ourselves, we’re running away by believing in some kind of comforting illusion. This is the reason we find it so hard to be still in ourselves, the reason we find it so hard not to be always ‘active’ in a purposeful way. We’re always ‘itching’ – we’re itching to do this, itching to do that, itching to do the other. Each itch is a thought and we’re always having these ‘thought-itches’. It’s as if we’re swarming with fleas. Every thought is a promise of how we may change ourselves or our situation and get from where we DON’T want to be to where we DO want to be (either this or it’s a threat of something terrible happening when we don’t manage to successfully change our situation, and this of course comes down to exactly the same thing). It’s a goad, either way. Thoughts always want to take us somewhere else; thoughts are distractions from what is.

 

When we’re identified with the mechanical self then we can’t ever stop running because if we do then we are immediately confronted with the blankness of that self, the sterility of that self. We get instantly ‘bored’ when the distraction-stimulus is taken away and if this carries on we go from merely feeling bored to feeling that we are actually going crazy. The situation of ‘not having anything to distract us from unconditionally being with ourselves as we actually are’ turns into unmitigated torture and we see no benefit in it at all. This is ‘where we don’t want to be’ in a big way! The trouble is that there’s no nourishment, no sustenance, no humour, no poetry in the mechanical self. When we stop running, stop distracting ourselves with illusions, then it is as if we are stuck in the most arid of deserts – the desert of the soul. No terrestrial desert was ever as arid as this. The mechanical self is totally sterile and we have no ‘comfort’ in it at all unless we are chasing goals of one sort or another, goals which we invest with a very special ‘magical’ quality…

 

What is this ‘very special magical quality’, we may ask? Simply put, the magical quality we invest our goals with is the promise of ‘radical change’, the promise of relief from the interminable tedium of our current situation, the promise of release from the oppressive burden of being ruled by a mere ‘mechanical thing’. This might in one way seem like a very obvious thing to be saying – that ‘the reason our goals are as attractive to us as they are is because they promise to deliver some sort of change’, but the thing about this is that the type of change which we are so bedazzled by is the type of change no goal can ever bring about.

 

The ‘magical outcome’ that the mechanical self is always dreaming about is the outcome of ‘escaping from itself’ and this is of course the one thing that can never come about as a result of chasing goals. The mechanical self isn’t going to suddenly / miraculously become non-mechanical as a result of behaving mechanically, after all! This would be like a heroin addict hoping to become free from his addiction as a result of regularly taking heroin, or like a worrier hoping to become liberated from worry via the clever tactic of thinking worrying thoughts. Chasing after mechanical goals does not liberate us from the suffering of the conditioned modality of being, which is the modality of being in which we are forever trying to ‘get things right’ in accordance with the thinking mind. Freedom from the mechanical self cannot come about as a result of goals because goals are the mechanical self…

 

This is – needless to say – a very curious situation. The thing that we are really chasing after the whole time – without being able to see it – is ‘escape from being the mechanical self’ (which isn’t who we are anyway, even though we don’t know this either) and this unconscious ‘displacement-type activity’ is the very thing that absolutely guarantees that we will never obtain the result that we are (unconsciously) hoping to obtain. As long as we’re trying to achieve an outcome the true nature of which we don’t understand on the basis of us being what we aren’t (and don’t understand that we aren’t) then the one thing that is 100% for certain is that this type of carry on isn’t ever going to get us anywhere!

 

Once we put things like this then the assertion that we can’t ever change ourselves no matter how much time or effort we put into it becomes a lot clearer. The assertion that I can’t ever change myself (since I’m not who I think I am anyway, and since the means by which I attempt to facilitate this change puts me more in debt than ever to this false way of understanding myself) starts to make very good sense indeed! All that is needed in order for me to get myself out of the situation where whatever I do only makes matters worse (by putting myself more in debt to the false-self system) is to stop acting in accordance with the dictates of the thinking mind. I can’t do this ‘on purpose’ because all purposes, all goals, belong to the thinking mind (because all purposes, all goals are the thinking mind). Whatever the rational mind points out as being to our advantage is only ever going to be to its advantage. Whatever the thinking mind tells us to do is only ever for its benefit, not ours. If it says that something is good, then it means ‘good for itself’, not for us! And as we have already said, it is no help to simply turn things around and disobey or contradict the thinking and take the opposite tack to the one we were going to take. We’re still obeying the thinking if we do this – we’re still doing what the thinking tells us is right to do because it is the thinking that is telling us to disobey the thinking…

 

Yet despite this apparently insoluble dilemma the ‘answer’ is staring us right in the face. It’s there all the time! It isn’t actually that problematical to ‘be where we don’t want to be’ – our situation (from the point of view of the thinking mind) is after all very rarely as we would like it to be. The one thing we are never going to run short of in life is unsatisfactory situations. The one thing we may be assured of is that things are very rarely going to work out exactly as we would like them to and this is – if we are willing to use the opportunity in a conscious way rather than a rational / reactive way – is to our very great advantage. ‘The moment I’m disappointed I’m encouraged’, says Rumi. It’s not that we need to be constantly affirming to ourselves that the unsatisfactory situation is in some way OK, that our disappointment is in some way OK, etc. – that would just be the thinking mind putting its stamp on the proceedings and making ‘Not OK’ into the new ‘OK’…

 

Awareness is infinitely subtler than this, and it is not an action or approach that we can deliberately take. Awareness is there all along, if we pay attention. Awareness means that we simply pay attention to ourselves being in a situation that we don’t want to be in, and we notice ourselves reacting to that situation – we notice ourselves trying to be not in that situation, we notice ourselves thinking about how it isn’t good to be in that situation, and so on. The beauty of this is that we aren’t – in this noticing – trying to change anything. What we’re talking about here isn’t an ‘extra-clever way of trying to escape from where we are,’ this is just us paying attention to what’s going on, paying attention to reality. What usually happens is that registering what is going on turns instantaneously into ‘trying to control what is going on’. Paying attention to reality never actually happens – we just launch straight off into a full-flight of automatic mental processes and activity revolving around how we don’t want to be there and what we might do to not be there and all this automatic activity blocks out anything else, like heavy cloud cover blocking out the sun.

 

We ‘take against’ the situation we find ourselves in, in other words. We say NO to what’s going on even before we really know what’s going on (and we never know what’s going on via the thinking mind anyway because the way the thinking mind works is by ‘jumping to conclusions’. This ‘saying NO’ is an involuntary thing – a force we cannot resist cuts in and takes charge of us. The ‘mechanical impulse’ takes charge of us and leaves us no leeway to be ourselves. We react against what’s happening and this reacting goes to further fuel the mechanical self, it goes to further perpetuate and strengthen the mechanical self. But if we are so powerless against the mechanical impulse – as indeed experience shows that we are – and giving in to the coercive current of the reaction (which doesn’t feel like ‘a reaction’ at all but simply ‘what we want to do’) further perpetuates and strengthens the mechanical self, then how we are ever going to be free?

 

To the extent that who we really are (our ‘essence’) is soaked up into the sponge of the mechanical self (so that there is no effective separation between the two) then there can be no such thing as freedom from mechanical rules, freedom from mechanical compulsions. There can’t even be any sense of us not being the mechanical self – what it wants is what we want. We just go along with everything and we don’t see that we are going along. But as soon as the consciousness within us does start to separate to some degree, so as to form an independent viewpoint, then we start to see that all is not well, that all is not as it should be. Awareness is itself a challenge to the false authority of the mechanical self, which is at root nothing more than a collection of habits. Separation of essence from personality (to use Gurdjieff’s terms) occurs just as soon as we start being sincere, just as soon as we stop lying to ourselves, just as soon as we stop automatically going along with whatever propaganda happens to be going around on any particular day. Until this separation takes place – to some extent or other – nothing of what we have been discussing will make the slightest bit of sense. And contrariwise – if what we have been talking about does make sense, then this means that the separation of essence and personality has already started to take place!

 

‘Separation’ means – as we have already said – that we have a viewpoint that is not the same as that of the mechanical self. We have our own viewpoint, not someone else’s. It also means that we have the capacity to be genuinely interested in our own pain, our own discomfort. The mechanical self has precisely zero capacity to be interested in pain – either its’ own or anyone else’s. All it can do is try to get away from pain, or try to quickly eliminate it by ‘fixing it’. It has no genuine interest in pain – the most it can do is develop some kind of ‘superficial interest’ with a view to helping its ability to manage or control the pain better. It will learn only what it needs to learn about pain in order to (hopefully) get rid of the pain, in other words.

 

The mechanical self has no interest in changing and pain – whether we can understand it or not – is a forerunner of change. The more aversion we experience to being in a particular situation the more potential that situation has to change us! The more we are able to feel the pain of being in the situation we’re actually in, the more transformed we already are!

 

When I am the mechanical self then the pain has nowhere to go (and this automatic pain-refusal is what drives everything in the mechanical or conditioned world) but when the pain does have somewhere to go, when it has somewhere where it can come to rest, then we come back into reality, and reality is the gift in the situation. The ‘gift’ is that we have been transformed into ourselves, transformed into who we really are. This most radical of transformations is what happens when we ‘kiss the frog’…

 

 

 

 

Valuing Our Vulnerability

Kuan Yin

Emotional ‘shutting down’ (or closing off’) is something that happens automatically – it’s a reflex, a mechanical response. The complementary process of ‘opening up’ – on the other hand – happens spontaneously. What this means is that we can’t open up again on purpose, just because we want to, just because we think that it is the right or helpful thing to do. This is like a snail retreating into its shell in the face of danger – the retreating will occur by reflex, but once the snail has retreated there is no way to push it or force it or trick it to come out again! Naturally enough, any sort of forcing will simply have the opposite effect and make the snail even slower to eventually re-emerge. The only thing that works is patience and gentleness. It takes as long as it takes, in other words!

 

‘Shutting down’ occurs as a result of us trying to become less vulnerable. This is so to speak the ‘default mechanical process’ in life – we are subjected to emotional pain, we get hurt, and so we tend to shut down (or ‘harden up’) so as to avoid the pain of this happening again. The logic is that if we are emotionally shut down – to whatever extent – then we won’t feel the pain so much. Perhaps, we might hope, we won’t even feel it at all! The process of growing up and becoming adults corresponds to a large degree with the process of becoming more defended, more withdrawn from the possibility of being emotionally hurt, more secure in our ‘personality armour’. As adults, we generally manage to develop tough hides for ourselves, and as a result we better able to survive in the aggressive, competitive world that we have created for ourselves. Being aggressive and unfeeling is – needless to say – much more of an advantage for us than being gentle and sensitive and the inevitable logical conclusion of this adaptive process of emotionally shutting down is that we become more and more narcissistic and more and more closed-off to (or disinterested in) anything that doesn’t have an immediate bearing our own well-being. Closing down causes us to be like machines, just getting on with our own business, accepting whatever way of life we are given, not looking at the bigger picture, and this makes living in our mechanical society a lot easier.

 

If being emotionally closed down helps our chances of succeeding in the outside world it certainly doesn’t do us any favours with regard to how we are on ‘the inside’. It doesn’t do our mental health any good. Success (or sometimes simply survival) is obtained at a high price – eventually – if we go down this road far enough – we lose touch with who we really are underneath it all. We lose touch with our true nature, which is compassionate and sensitive, not aggressive and unfeeling, as our acquired generic personality-armour is. Losing touch with who we really are is a pretty big price to pay by anyone’s standards – if I lose who I actually am underneath it all then who has benefited from this successful adaptation? Who’s the winner if the authentic self is no longer there? What happens in this case is that the ‘personality-armour’ runs around all by itself, without anyone on the inside. I become ‘an outside without an inside’. I become a bundle of reflexes and hard-wired survival strategies with no heart since my heart (my core) is the sensitive and compassionate part of myself, the part that I have had to jettison in order to get on in the world…

This is of course an old story. What we’re talking about is ‘selling our birth right for a mess of pottage’. Or as we read in Matthew 16:26 –

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?

Nothing in psychology is new, much as we might think that our situation is different now to that of previous ages. As has often been said, it is only the superficial trappings that have changed – the same challenges, the same human dramas emerge time and time again. The psyche remains the same. And the lessons that life teaches us are the same. The primary challenge in life – we might say – is the challenge to stay true to ourselves in the face of everything that goes on in the world. On the one hand we have the pressure of a competitive, aggressive, image-based society which demands that we be a certain way in order to fit in, and on the other hand we have the personal traumas that we go through, particularly in childhood, that cause us to emotionally withdraw, to emotionally shut down, to survive in any way we can. Either way, our own defences (our own survival strategies) are going to end up causing us a whole new chapter of suffering, which is the suffering of being disconnected from life itself. This is the whole thing about ‘becoming invulnerable’ – what we are in our core is pure vulnerability (i.e. pure sensitivity) and so when we shut the door to ourselves, we shut the door to who we really are. Alternatively, we could say that when we make ourselves insensitive (desensitized) from the pain and the ugliness of life, we make ourselves insensitive to everything else in life too. And the pain of being cut off from life, cut off from our sensitive core, turns out – in the long run – to be the worst pain of all.

 

As we have already said, ‘closing down’ (and becoming as a result ‘invulnerable’) happens automatically, and once it has happened there is nothing we can do to deliberately reverse it. This means that there is no way to remedy our situation by any deliberate, rational strategy – even though this what we always try to do. We can’t trick or coercive or bribe the snail to come back out of its shell! There is no such thing as strategy or method for ‘increasing our vulnerability’ – all strategies, techniques, methods, etc., exist for the purpose of decreasing our vulnerability not increasing it. If I’m using a strategy it’s because I want to be more in control and if I’m ‘more in control’ then I’m less vulnerable. We can’t pressurize ourselves not to ‘shut down’ because pressurizing (or ‘forcing’) always makes us shut down more. This means that our normal/habitual mode of ‘dealing with stuff’ is of no use to us. It is not just ‘of no use to us’, it is counterproductive. It works against us. It has the opposite effect to the one we wanted. What helps is not trying to control or manoeuvre or pressurize ourselves so that we ‘become the way we want ourselves to be’, but to cultivate sensitivity and gentleness so that that we can relate to ourselves as we actually are.

 

It could be said that there are two side of our nature – the ‘purposeful’ or ‘rational’ side, the side that is in control (or wants to be in control) and the side that is spontaneous, playful and ‘child-like’. The purposeful side of us is the invulnerable side (or at least it proceeds on the basis of always trying to minimize its vulnerability!) whilst the spontaneous side doesn’t act with the agenda of minimizing its vulnerability – it doesn’t act with any agenda, which is why we can say that it is spontaneous! The purposeful / rational side of us is always trying to seek advantage in everything it does, whilst the spontaneous aspect of ourselves is not seeing the world narrowly on the basis of loss or gain, advantage or disadvantage, good or bad, right or wrong. The spontaneous self is not aggressive, in other words. It’s not a manipulator.

 

As we have indicated, what very much tends to happen in life as we grow up and move away from the ‘child-like’ side of our nature (this movement being of course perfectly natural) is that the other (invulnerability-seeking) aspect of ourselves ‘takes over completely’ and chokes the spontaneous side. This process happens quite automatically and as we have said we don’t usually notice it happening. This is what Wei Wu Wei is saying here in this quote from Ask the Awakened

As busy little bees, gathering honey here and there, and adding it to their stock in their hive, we are wasting our time, and worse, for we are building up that very persona whose illusory existence stands between our phenomenal selves and the truth of what we are, and which is what the urge in us is seeking.

The psychological urge to seek security and avoid risk/ uncertainty in life is both extremely powerful and extremely persuasive, whilst the spontaneous self (which is the heart of who we are) is not demanding and aggressively assertive in the way that the purposeful self is. It is therefore very easily forgotten about. We listen to the loud voice not the quiet one. We pay attention to the noisy, clamorous purposeful self and neglect its quieter, gentler companion! We feed it in preference just as a blackbird or starling will feed a baby cuckoo in preference to its own. And of course the thing that happens in the case of the cuckoo is that the real offspring gets thrown out of the nest entirely. It gets evicted, and the imposter is given all the privileges…

 

This neglect precisely what happens to us in the process of ‘growing up – the true self gets forgotten about, gets turfed unceremoniously out of the nest. It gets ditched. We never even notice that it is gone because we have a substitute to keep us busy. Or rather, we don’t notice for a long time – until the pain of living on the basis of who we’re not’ (rather than ‘who we are’) comes so much to the foreground that we start to realize that something is not right. When this happens we can’t help seeing that something is not right. Lavishing all our attention on the purposeful-rational self is therefore the root of neurotic suffering, and the ‘cure’ is simply to get back in touch with who we are. The snag here however is as we have said that this cannot be done on purpose, using methods and control. This is a real dilemma – we can’t get back in touch with ourselves on purpose’ and yet the other side of ourselves – the spontaneous, creative, intuitive, humorous, compassionate side, is the side that we have lost! That’s the side we threw out!

 

The question is therefore, how do we get back in touch with the sensitive (non-aggressive) side of our nature? How can we become non-aggressive, without being aggressive about it? How can we learn to relinquish control? The thread that is provided for us to follow is – of course – our own pain! If there is pain then there is sensitivity – how could there be pain there if there was no sensitivity? The sensitivity actually is the pain we are experiencing, when it comes down to it, and so the problem here is that we are forever trying to get away from our own sensitivity (which is our own true nature). Our automatic response is to run away from it, to build barriers. Even if the barriers are continuously crumbling or disintegrating, we are still working away at reinstating them. This is what is happening in anxiety. This is where insight comes in – once we have the deep understanding that what we are fighting against is our sensitivity and that our sensitivity is our own essential nature, then some of the automatic energy goes out of this fight, out of this bitter struggle, and we find that we start to relate to our pain in a less violent or aggressive way. Being sensitive to our own pain (instead or dismissing or disowning it as we would normally do) is how the Thirteenth Century Persian poet Rumi says we cultivate compassion –

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

In Tibetan Buddhism relating with tenderness to our own inner pain is also seen as a key practice in ‘recovering oneself’; in the following passage Pema Chodron explains this practice in terms of cultivating bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is also equated, in part, with compassion—our ability to feel the pain that we share with others. Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions of all kinds: anger, craving, indifference, jealousy and envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot—our innate ability to love and to care about things—is like a crack in these walls we erect. It’s a natural opening in the barriers we create when we’re afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta.
An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.

The very thing that we are fighting against is the thing that will help us therefore. The pain which we are automatically (and violently) rejecting is actually inseparable from our own true nature, and so in closing off to it we are closing off to ourselves. That’s the only place the help can come from. Being invulnerable creates second order pain and we react to this pain by closing down (or attempting to close down) still further. If we could do this then we would, and we would not feel the pain, but the very fact that we can’t manage to close the pain down is our life-line since this is our connection with the core of who we are, which had become lost to us. Naturally we don’t want to cultivate this connection – if my essential nature is pain then why would I want to have the connection to it? This is the logic that leads us to run away, to shut down. But the dilemma is always the same – when the pain of being shut down becomes worse, more unbearable, than the pain we were originally shutting down to, what do we do then?

 

This of course seems like a cruel and very unwelcome dilemma to find ourselves in, but at the same time it is the healing process at work (the healing process being that process by which we recover the Wholeness of ourselves). As Rumi says,

The cure for the pain is in the pain.

Eventually, if we go along gently with the process of healing (instead of fighting it tooth and nail), we find ourselves opening up again instead of closing down, and when we open up in the face of pain we come to discover something we couldn’t ever have imagined. This might be likened to the blooming of a strangely beautiful and entirely unexpected flower, under the most adverse conditions. In Rumi’s words,

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

This is a very curious thing. The strange and beautiful flower we are talking about does not bloom under normal conditions. It blooms under adversity. As long as we are absorbing all our values from the social system that we’re born into there will be no flowering of our true nature. There will be no flowering of wisdom and compassion. That doesn’t come from adapting to society and living as we are expected to live, but only from deep within ourselves. From a mechanical tree comes nothing but mechanical fruit. To expect otherwise would be like expecting an assembly line in a factory to produce something different, to produce something quirky and unique. No matter what it may claim to the contrary, the social system wants us to shut us down – it wants us to be narcissistic and uninterested in the bigger picture. In a word, it wants us to be ‘asleep’. The flower of compassion, wisdom and love blooms under difficult conditions, not under the sleep-inducing conditions that are provided for us by contemporary culture. The generic culture gives rise to the generic self, and the generic self is the denial of who we truly are.
From an alchemical point of view, it could be said that ‘the more severely we are tested, the purer the metal that is formed in the crucible’. The starting-off point of the alchemical work of self-transformation is to be found in those parts of ourselves which we most want to reject, as Paul Levi says –

The elusive prima materia needs to be found before the opus could begin. Psychologically speaking, the mysterious prima materia re-presents, and is to be discovered in, the parts of the psyche that we deny, dis-own and marginalize, the aspects of ourselves that we feel ashamed of, revulsion for and turn away from in disgust. In Jung’s words, this “means that the thing which we think the least of, that part of ourselves which we repress perhaps the most, or which we despise, is just the part which contains the mystery.” We typically want to get rid of the shadow aspects of our personality, but the alchemists understood that our wounded, inferior and unconscious parts aren’t an accident or error, but rather, has a value and cosmic perfection to them that is stunning. Our wounds, the base material of the work, are indispensable for the accomplishment of the opus, for without these shadow parts there would be no way to make the alchemical gold.

It is of course true that very few of us would chose to walk this most difficult of paths ourselves, but if we happen to find ourselves on it (and there is nothing we can do about it), would we not welcome the message of the ancient wisdom teachings that have helped human beings throughout the ages, and which is so very different from the message that contemporary culture gives us?