Trying To Improve An Illusion

There is very odd fact about our existence that we don’t generally observe and this fact is that we can never just be in the world, we have to be in the world whilst thinking about being in the world and this business of ‘being in the world whilst continually thinking about being in the world’ isn’t being in the world at all! It is something else entirely. Being in the world whilst thinking about being in the world is the same thing as ‘existing in a desire state’ and the pertinent point about this is that desire states aren’t real.

 

We can never just ‘be’ in the world for some reason; this is the one thing we just can’t do. We obviously believe (on some level) that this continual thinking–type activity is highly beneficial to us, if not actually essential. Why else would we put so much energy into it – we’re obviously looking for some advantageous outcome that is going to come about as a result of our investment! Clearly, it’s not enough for us just to be in the world – that seems to be of no value at all to us – we always have to looking for some mysterious ‘advantage’. This then provides us with a very neat summary of the human situation – a continual striving for improvement, a continual searching for advantage.

 

It is of course fairly normal for us to be spending our time looking for some kind of advantage. We’re conditioned that way; we’re brought up that way. It is widely considered to be a good thing to be busying ourselves doing this, that and the other and ‘busy’ means – in essence – ‘looking for an advantage’. What else would it mean? We’re not investing energy in activity for nothing – we’re looking for a result, we’re trying to improve things.

 

‘Trying to improve things’ has therefore become a sickness for us. It’s not a bad thing in itself – obviously – but when it runs away with us so that we don’t know how to stop ‘looking for the advantage’ in every situation then it isn’t a good thing at all. It has become a horror, it has become a pestilence. Trying to improve things all the time and not to be able to stop is like having an itch that we can’t help from scratching even when this continuous scratching makes things worse rather than better and this is clearly not a happy situation. To be perfectly blunt about it, what we’re talking about here is a type of self-harming – it’s an addiction to an activity that is bad for us.

 

From time to time things do need ‘improving’ and that is an undeniable fact. If we’re looking for food and we need to eat something in order not to starve then this is a situation that needs improving! If we come across someone who is in immediate danger and needs assistance this is also ‘a situation that needs improving’ – the ‘advantage’ in question here is to ensure the other person’s well-being and safety. We have practical needs in life and these needs need to be looked after, obviously. But to say (or rather, unconsciously assume) that reality itself is something that continually needs improving (or continually needs fixing) is nothing short of insanity. Obviously this can’t be true and to so to be continuously and strenuously acting as if it was true is a sickness.

 

To be continually looking for the advantage and not to be able to stop (and, indeed, not even to be able to recognise the fact that there might be something else in life other than continually ‘looking for the advantage’) is nothing short of insanity, but it’s also a type of insanity that each and every one of us is perpetually embroiled in, which makes it invisible to us. Because we don’t come across anyone who isn’t doing the same thing that we’re doing this means that we’re not going to be able to recognise this strange situation for what it is. To us, it’s just ‘normal’. We think being busy the whole time is good.

 

If being (or reality) were somehow ‘deficient in itself’ then this business of ‘perpetual unrelenting fixing’ might make some sort of sense but this premise is – of course – utterly false and utterly ridiculous. How could ‘being’ or ‘reality’ be deficient? The irony is – as we started off by saying – that our continual attempts to improve reality actually degrades it – it is why we can say that continual thinking (and thinking is always an attempt to fix one way or another) is a sickness. It’s a sickness because we are continually degrading our own reality.

 

This is – without any doubt at all – an idea that doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense to us and the thing about ideas that don’t make the slightest bit of sense to us is that we don’t tend to entertain them very long! Our favourite activity is – or so we are claiming in this discussion – trying to improve things (either trying to improve ourselves or trying to improve the world) and the reason we are as invested or preoccupied as we are in the ‘improvement business’ is of course because we imagine that we’re making things better rather than worse! To learn that were actually doing the opposite of what we think we are and that we are degrading our reality rather than enhancing it is a very difficult thing for us to take on therefore. Human nature being what it is, when we come across an idea that is going to result in a truly radical change to the way we see the things then we just don’t go there. Our whole motivation is to preserve the integrity and stability of the apple-cart, not to upset it. We seek equilibrium, not disequilibrium.

 

How can we make such a claim as this however? How can we back up the assertion that we are continually degrading our own reality with our attempts to make things better? The key lies in what we said earlier, which is that ‘trying to improve things’ is fine when it is done from time to time for strictly practical reasons, but that when we’re at it the whole time then something has gone very amiss. ‘Improving things’ has in this case become an end in itself; ‘striving to obtain our goals’ has become an end in itself, ‘purposeful activity’ has become an end in itself. We might of course try to argue that striving to be a better version of oneself isn’t the same thing as continually struggling to obtain external goals but of course it is we wouldn’t know what direction to struggle in unless we first had an idea of what ‘better’ means and what ‘worse’ means. When we talk about ‘striving to better ourselves’ what we really mean is ‘striving to better accord with our idea of ourselves’, and this isn’t the same thing at all.

 

When we try to improve things in accordance with our ideas, or in accordance with our thinking, what this really comes down to is ‘worshipping a false god’, since ‘the thought is not the thing’. My idea of the world is not the world and my idea of who I am is not who I am. This brings to mind the old Zen story of the finger pointing at the moon – if the finger pointing at the moon helps us to see the moon then that is helpful (that is after all the whole point of the exercise) but if we get fixated upon the pointing finger instead (as if the finger itself were the thing) then this is a very great error! In this case we are ‘worshipping the teapot rather than drinking the tea’, as Wei Wu Wei says, and the only point of the teapot is to facilitate us in drinking the tea. The teapot isn’t an end in itself.

 

This is one way of looking at why ‘always trying to improve things’ is a disease therefore – because it causes us to deviate from our own true nature in a ‘suffering-producing’ way. A slightly different way of looking at this is to say, as we did earlier, that ‘trying to improve things’ is the same thing as ‘looking for the advantage’ and an advantage is something that always exists in relation to a particular point of reference. The point of reference that we’re talking about here is of course the self and the thing about this is that the self is an abstraction that has been created by thought. All reference points are created by thought and anything that has been created by thought is ‘an abstraction’ (an ‘abstraction’ being something that doesn’t exist in its own right but which has been produced by drawing boundaries that don’t really exist). All ‘improvement’ comes down to expanding the Abstraction Realm that we are taken for granted and this ‘expanding of the Abstraction Realm’ isn’t actually a real thing at all. It might be our favourite activity, but that doesn’t mean that it’s real!

 

As we have been saying, some specific ‘acts of improvement’ are necessary or helpful – if we are cold and we need to find a way of warming ourselves up then this type of improvement is of course perfectly legitimate. This is a type of ‘improvement’ that exists in relation to the physical organism and whilst the physical organism itself may be said to be an abstraction just as thoughts are (all matter is after all an abstraction from what Heraclitus calls the Universal Flux or from what David Bohm calls the Holomovement) we also need to make the point that this just happens to be an abstraction that is legitimately important to us! Our thoughts and beliefs are a different matter however – they could be useful if viewed in a strictly provisional way but they are more likely to be the exact opposite of helpful. When we can’t stop trying to improve our situation (and this means ‘continually grasping’ or ‘continually thinking) then this is because we are trying to extend or promote the Abstraction Realm that has illegitimately become our master.

 

This is what we might call a ‘counterproductive activity’ therefore, an activity that has become ‘against life itself’ – life itself is not an abstraction, after all. What we are essentially trying to ‘improve’ with all our grasping-type activity is an illusion and what we don’t see is that an illusion can’t be improved, no matter how much effort we put into it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being The Compassionate Witness Of Our Own Lives

The most helpful thing we can do for ourselves – and in the long run the only ‘helpful thing’ we can do for ourselves – is to be the compassionate witness of our own lives.

 

This doesn’t tend to come easily however. Normally we try to be the ‘fixer’ or ‘improver’ of our own lives and when this doesn’t work, when this doesn’t bear fruit, we turn into the blamer, the critic, the judge of our own lives. These are the only two possibilities we know, generally speaking. Either we try to improve or fix ourselves, and believe that we can do so (if we try hard enough) or we are condemnatory to ourselves for not being able to fix ourselves, for not being able to improve ourselves as we are clearly supposed to. Either we are busy putting ‘positive moral pressure’ on ourselves to change, or we’re busy putting ‘negative moral pressure’ on ourselves for not changing. Either we’re ‘encouraging’, or we’re  ‘punishing’…

 

There is a third possibility however – one that does not involve pressure, either of the positive or negative variety. One thing that is very hard for us to see is that any sort of pressure is non-therapeutic, non-helpful when it comes to mental health. ‘Pressure’ means aggression when it comes down to it – it means ‘the application of force’. I want things to be different to the way they are and I am going to use methods and strategies to ensure that the change I want to see comes about.  This goal-orientated approach is fine when we are effecting change in the outside world, but it is entirely counterproductive when we apply it to the inner world of our thoughts and feelings. The outside world is very different from the ‘inside world in this respect’. Whilst in the external world skill and force can make helpful changes (for example when chopping wood or building a house) it is absolutely impossible to find peace and happiness through either skill or forceful effort. We ought to see this clearly perhaps, but somehow we just don’t.

 

All we need to do is to reflect on the matter a while – how can the exercise of force ever be expected to bring about inner peace? How can I pressurize myself to be ‘at peace’? Obviously I can pressurize myself to be at peace but equally obviously this is never ever going to work! This is like ‘forcing myself to be free’ – if I am being forced to do anything then this is the opposite to being free. It’s like having a rule that says ‘There must be no rules.’ Really what we’re talking about here is a self-contradiction that – when we’re under enough pressure – we can’t see to be a self-contradiction. Because we can’t see the contradiction, because we can’t see the paradox in what we’re trying to do, we keep on banging our head against a brick wall and all we ever get for our efforts is a very sore head…

 

Equally, we can very easily see (if we reflect on the matter for a moment or two) that there is no way to bring about inner peace by cleverness, by artifice. Cleverness just means coercing things to go the way we want them to go and whilst this – again – generally works just fine in the outside world it doesn’t work for the inner world of our thoughts and feelings. If I have managed to obtain some sort of peace of mind via cleverness, via cunning or artifice, then the one thing we can be 100% sure of is that this so-called ‘peace of mind’ isn’t the genuine article. It’s going to give way at some point or other and peace of mind that gives way when it is pushed too far isn’t peace of mind at all – it’s just a comforting delusion that we have temporarily bought for ourselves. Peace that is brought about by cleverness isn’t peace at all – really, it’s just ‘trouble in disguise’. It’s mental suffering waiting to happen. ‘Manufactured peace’ is actually mental suffering waiting to be unleashed on me when the time is right. So what we’re saying here is that peace which I bring about by my own efforts or my own cleverness is actually the very opposite of peace – it’s ‘phoney peace’ (or ‘make-believe well-being’) that has to be maintained and coaxed along in case it collapses on us.

 

When we talk about ‘cracking up’ or ‘having a mental breakdown’ this is what we are talking about. We’re talking about having our comfort zone collapse or disintegrate on us. We’re talking about the illusion of peace and well-being that we have invested so much time and effort in falling to pieces all around us. We’re talking about the cracks in the structure we had cobbled together getting bigger and bigger, wider and wider, until eventually it starts to look as if everything is going to fall down them. Sometimes we might even have dreams of cracks appearing in our house, or we might develop anxiety about ‘things going wrong’ or ‘things falling apart’. What we’re really frightened of is our comfort zone failing us, and what we are calling ‘our comfort zone’ is simply the mind-created version of peace or well-being that we have put in place of the real thing. So it’s not just that comfort zones always bring anxiety, our comfort zones ARE anxiety. These are two different words for the same thing!

 

Our comfort zones (which is to say, the illusion of mental health and well-being that we have bought into with the aid of society) were created in the first place by ‘fixing’ and when they start to go wrong (as they always do in the end) what we find ourselves doing is trying to fix them. “How do I fix my failing comfort zone?” I ask. Only I don’t phrase it exactly like this because I don’t see what I am trying to fix as a ‘comfort zone’. I see it as my life, or perhaps ‘who I am’. When we gain a bit of insight into what’s going on however we see that the idea of ‘fixing’ our failing comfort zones is ridiculous – ‘fixing’ didn’t work in the first place (because it never could) and so now I’m trying to ‘fix my fixing’ in the forlorn hope that repeating the mistake will somehow makes things better… And then – when my fixing of my fixing starts to come undone at the seams – presumably I am going have to start fixing my fixing of my fixing, and so on and so forth. This is what Carl Jung called the via erratum, the ‘way of error’.

 

The way of error is when we start to think that we can bring about our own mental well-being by our own efforts. Essentially, it is when we think we can successfully hoist ourselves up in the air by our own shoe-laces! It is when we think we can get ourselves out of the hole our thinking got us into by using that very same thinking. (And as Einstein is often quoted as having said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”) From a psychological perspective, we could say that ‘when we neurotically try to avoid the pain cause by own neurosis we make an even worse neurosis.’  We are attempting to avoid the fruit of our own avoidance, and at the same time allowing ourselves to hope that this secondary avoidance is somehow going to work where the first avoidance didn’t! Yet another way of explaining ‘the way of error’ is to say that it is when we keep on having to tell new and ever more inventive lies to get out of the trouble that was caused by the first lie. Clearly this road – if followed – is not going to take us to a good place…

 

Jung contrasted the via erratum with the via veritas, the ‘way of truth’. If we think about our last definition of the via erratum as ‘a lie that keeps on multiplying and growing new heads’ this makes a lot of sense. No cleverness is needed, no forcing or no coercion. All that is required is that we refrain covering it up, and let the truth come to light (as it is going to anyway). So we see our avoidances for what they are, instead of avoiding seeing them for what they are, which is what we usually do. We own up to the lie, instead of telling a new one! We can also talk about the via veritas in terms of being the fearless yet non-judgemental witness of our own lives. Being the compassionate witness of our own lives means not avoiding seeing what is going on – whatever is going on, we see it. Our normal approach – as we have said – is to straightaway try to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ what is going on. We can’t bear to be with ourselves and so what we do is to leap straight into ‘fixing mode’ (or ‘avoiding mode’). ‘Fixing’ and ‘avoiding’ are the very same thing when it comes down to it – both come out of the very same motivation, which is fear. Being the compassionate witness of ourselves is the only thing that isn’t driven by fear. This is the only way of relating to ourselves that isn’t fundamentally aggressive. As Pema Chodron says:

The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.

Pema Chodron talks a lot about cultivating the virtue of fearlessness, which is completely different from aggression – aggression being nothing other than the active aspect of fear. Our normal approach to ourselves when we are experiencing a lot of mental suffering – as we started off by saying – is to either try to fix ourselves, or to recriminate viciously against ourselves when we find that we can’t do this. It is very easy to see why self-recrimination isn’t going to help our mental health, but it isn’t so easy to see why striving to change or improve ourselves isn’t a helpful thing. Yet both ‘striving to fix or better myself’ and ‘blaming myself for not succeeding at what was never going to be possible in the first place’ are branches from the very same tree. It’s the same thing, the same impulse in both cases – it is ‘self-aggression’.

 

Once we start to see our self-aggression, and compassionately understand it for what it is, then it straightaway starts to melt. The self-aggression straightaway starts to lose its punch, its power, its ‘viciousness’.  Aggression only works under cover of ‘darkness’ (or ‘unconsciousness’) – once we bring the light of gentle, non-judgemental awareness to self-aggression then everything starts to change. Things soften up; the iron cage that is enclosing us so tightly and so painfully starts to ease up slightly and we find that we can breathe again. A bit of space comes back to us; space in which we can simply ‘be’. This life-giving change doesn’t come about as a result of ‘doing’ however – it doesn’t happen because we followed prescribed steps or used methods to make it happen. It happens by itself, quite naturally, no force needed, just as a muddy puddle clears all by itself when we stop stirring it about with a stick…