We Can’t ‘Do’ Change

We can’t ‘do’ change – that’s an absolute impossibility! ‘Change that we do’ is always purely for the sake of shoring up our sense of identity and ‘shoring up our sense of identity’ is not change. It’s ‘entrenchment’, it’s ‘digging in deeper’, obviously…

 

Any ‘change’ (so-called) that I might myself enact is merely ‘me asserting myself’, in other words. I’m trying to ‘get things to happen the way I want them to happen’ and this is never going to involve any sort of genuine change. That’s just controlling. Genuine change can only happen when I give up trying to be in control – controlling means ‘holding on to my basic assumptions’, after all, and holding onto my basic assumptions is never going to get me anywhere different! The instinct or urge not to let go almost always predominates – even when something in us wants to let go and ‘give up the constant controlling’ there is almost always another, stronger part that doesn’t.

 

We are aware that change will come if we do relinquish control, the only thing being that we automatically assume that this will be change of the unwanted type, and so in this case it seems much better than to us that we should be ‘stuck’ rather than letting things actually get worse. We feel that we are on the edge – potentially – of some kind of catastrophic change, and this is therefore what keeps us locked into our frozen (or ‘defensive’) posture. Things are not good but we know that they can quickly get a lot worse if we let go of whatever control we have, and so it’s ‘stalemate’.

 

Our perception in this regard – however strong – is in error however. From a psychological point of view it is always ‘staying the same’ that is the most painful thing. Or we could equally well say that it is ‘trying to stay the same when we know that – ultimately – this is not going to be possible’ that is the most painful thing. We are fighting against something bigger than us in this case, and we’re also fighting against our own awareness into the bargain, and what could be a more uncomfortable situation than this? Who would want to be locked into this position?

 

What genuinely helps is not any type of effort that we might make; as we have already said,  any sort of effort that we make is only the fixed identity asserting (or trying to assert) itself and the aim of the fixed identity asserting itself is always to resist change, the aim is always to keep things the same. It’s consolidation it’s all about, not radical change. The fixed or static identity is a conservative force; the static identity is only the static identity because it resists change, after all! Even more to the point, the ‘stalemate’ defensive position that we were just talking about actually IS the static identity – the two are the very same thing, they simply can’t be separated!

 

 

This is – needless to say – a very different way of looking at identity to the one which we usually have. To our everyday way of understanding things, our identity is the most important part of us – it’s ‘who we are’ and so of course it’s the most part important part of us! This is a misapprehension however; it is something that we automatically accept as being ‘obviously true’, even though we could very easily see that it isn’t so ‘obviously true’ at all if we were to actually look into it. The ‘static identity’ as a defensive posture; it’s what happens when we hold on’ to ourselves, when we hold onto the status quo. When we truly relax then – as we can easily notice if we took the trouble – we can see that we are not this fixed, unyielding sense of identity at all. We’re not a ‘fixed thing’ (and why we want to be) – we are a fluid process, and what’s so hard to understand about this? There are no fixed things in nature, only fluid processes, so why should we imagine that we are any different?

 

When we relax (and stop holding on so tightly to ourselves) then we come ‘back to ourselves’, we ‘relax back into ourselves,’ so to speak. Only the funny thing here is that we are not just relaxing into ourselves, also relaxing out of ourselves. When we are stressed or very focused on something then the world narrows down until it is no bigger than what is stressing us or what we are focusing on. No one is going to argue about this! But alongside this narrowing or shrinking of our subjective world there is also a corresponding narrowing and shrinking of our sense of ourselves – the two shrinkages go together, naturally enough. When more perspective comes into the picture then we can see that the world is a bigger place than we thought it was and we can see that we are more than we thought we were too…

 

The problem is however that we are so very used to our more ‘clenched’ or defensive modality of being in the world that we actually think that this is who we are. Alan Watts says that in normal everyday sensors identity is actually nothing more than a knot of ‘chronic tension’ that we assume to be us. If the ‘knot of chronic tension’ were all of a sudden to go away then this would feel very strange to us – even though it would be a great relief at the same time, much as it is a relief when a cramped muscle finally eases up! The idea of letting go of his knot never occurs to us however and, in fact, it’s not just that letting go of the knot never occurs to (as a idea of something that might perhaps be beneficial) but rather that we go the opposite way entirely – we nurture and take care of the knot (or of the ‘fixed identity’) as if this were the only thing that matters in life.

 

‘Taking care of something’ is usually a good thing but in this case our ‘care-taking’ is working against us since we are supporting the very state of affairs that is causing us pain. We are sabotaging the health or well-being of the greater part of ourselves for the sake of the ‘well-being’ of the knot of tension that we have short-sightedly identified with. Really, therefore, we are caught up in a dilemma that we can’t actually see. We can’t ‘have it both ways’, but we want to! What we want is to be identified with the fixed identity (so that we can use it to serve as the centre of our world, to serve as ‘an unquestionable reference point’) but at the same time not to have to put up with the pain that comes from this fixed sense of identity. When the Buddha stated in his First Noble Truth that ‘existence is suffering’ it was the conditioned existence of the fixed identity he was referring to.

 

Our dilemma is that we are caught up in a blatant self-contradiction – we want good mental health and the cessation of all neurotic symptomology (of course) but we also want to hang tightly onto the cause of all that neurotic suffering. We don’t see this self-contradiction at all and this is why we are so very caught up in it. Instead, we are always searching for this ‘mythological creature’ – the mythological creature which is ‘the happiness and fulfilment of the static sense of identity’. We are searching high and low for this strange mythological beast – we are absolutely convinced that it must be out there somewhere so we never tire of searching for it, we never tire of inventing strategies to catch it.

 

As it happens, the fact that the fixed sense of self can never find the happiness and peace that it is searching for is in one way helpful to it – it is ‘helpful’ because it is this searching that keeps the game going. Deep down there is no dilemma; deep-down there is no ‘self-contradiction’ at all because our allegiance is – for the most part – ‘all the one way’ – our allegiance is to the fixed identity and its continuation, no matter what the price. Ultimately, this is a problem for us because the fixed sense of identity (this knot of chronic tension) doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’. Obviously knot of tension doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’ – it’s only knot of tension, after all! The fixed or static sense of identity has the same type of existence is that of a wrinkle in a tablecloth – it’s there in one way because we can see it but it’s not there in another, profounder way. If it was a bump in a carpet instead of a wrinkle in a tablecloth that we were talking about we could even trip over it and hurt ourselves! The wrinkle or bump still doesn’t actually ‘exist’ however because if we were pull it taut then there would be no trace left of it.

 

We get around the problem of ‘the static sense of identity not having any actual existence in itself’ by keeping ourselves forever preoccupied trying to find a ‘peace of mind’ that we can never attain; by keeping ourselves busy hunting for a happiness or sense of completion that will never be ours. This is ‘the paradox of happiness‘ – we can never be happy until we stop looking for happiness! Looking at this another way, we could also say that the paradox of happiness is that the happiness of the one who yearns and strives after happiness, is actually comprised of the absence of that ‘yearner’, that ‘striver’…

 

This ‘solution’ of ours does not change the fact that our commitment to the fixed identity is also our commitment to suffering. When we succeed in perpetuating the fixed identity we are also succeeding in perpetuating the root cause of our suffering, and so this doesn’t really help us any! We’re only clinging onto pain, after all, no matter what strategy we try. The emotional and mental pain that we are struggling against only ever grows as we struggle against it. Why wouldn’t it – it feeds on our resistance, after all! Sometimes – perhaps a lot of the time – there might be no visible sign of this pain, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t ‘stacked up somewhere’, waiting to manifest itself. If we imagine that we have successfully fought against the pain and gotten rid of it then this only makes matters worse – by ‘fighting successfully against the pain’ we have only affirmed the reality of ‘the winner of the game of pain-avoidance’, which is the static identity that has caused the pain in the first place. By ‘fixing the problem’ we have only reaffirmed the existence of ‘the fixer’, who was the original cause of the problem that needed to be fixed…

 

When the suffering that is inherent in our situation becomes too much for us then – naturally – this brings us to the point where we can clearly see the need for some major change and this is of course a crucially important insight on our part. The problem arises however when we try to bring about this change ourselves, as a result of the effort of will, as a result of our own cleverness or determination. This of course means that we have automatically turned our situation into ‘a problem that needs to be fixed’, and this – as we have just said – means that we going around in circles.

 

We can’t ‘change things on purpose’ as we started out this discussion by saying. We can’t ‘do’ change – change can’t occur as a result of our ‘purposeful output’. We can change things ‘on the outside’ – I can organise things this way or that way, I can put up a shelf on the wall I could not put it up, I can mow the lawn or not mow the lawn, there is scope for all sorts of purposeful activity, but this shouldn’t confuse us into thinking that we can change ourselves to. When the static identity tries to change the situation all it is really doing is imposing its own ideas of what that change should be, and the static identity’s ‘ideas about what the change should be’ are itself. The static identity is its set of ideas. The identity is trying to assert (or promote) itself but this just isn’t change! That’s not change at all, it’s just ‘the same old story’…

 

 

It is extraordinarily helpful to understand this. Normally we very strongly feel that we should be doing something to get ourselves out of the situation we are in and so if we can’t (which we won’t be able to in any real way) then we blame ourselves and feel guilty about it. We have already ‘failed’ – or so it seems – to be feeling so bad in the first place, and then we have ‘failed again’ by not being able to do something about this situation. All that responsibility (which is actually ‘false responsibility’) is weighing heavily on us and it’s turning into guilt and self-recrimination because we can’t fix the problem when we are convinced that this is what we should be doing. What helps us in this situation is to see that we aren’t this not of tension, that we aren’t this fixed sense of identity. We can’t get rid of a knot of tension by ‘making it into a problem’ and fighting against it, after all! Blind aggression isn’t really going to help us here…

 

 

 

Image: Great Buddha of Kamakura, taken from gaiijinpot.com