The Treadmill of Runaway Thinking

When we think we do so because we’re trying to change things from being ‘the way that they are’ to some other way, some other way that corresponds to an idealized view or concept of reality that we have. Or we could just say that we’re trying to change things from being ‘the way that they are’ to ‘the way that we’d like them to be’.

 

Sometimes this is useful – sometimes it’s actually vitally important, in fact – but at other times it’s not at all useful, very often it could even be the opposite of useful. Most of the time our thinking is no more than what we might call ‘a habit’ or ‘an automatic reflex’. This ‘automatic reflex’ dominates our lives – we actually think all day long, from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go back to sleep again. We’re so used to this automatic thinking that we barely register it. To be thinking all the time is the normal way to be – if we weren’t thinking then this would come as rather a big shock to us!

 

Thinking can be very helpful at times, when it is specifically and practically needed, but when we think all the time, by pure force of habit, then it is not. It’s not helpful to think all the time (whether we want to or not) because doing this stops us living in the real world. Our thoughts don’t take us into reality after all, they take us deeper and deeper into what we might call ‘the world of our thoughts’. Thinking all the time is a kind of one-way ticket into a ‘purely conceptual reality’ and to be caught up in a full-time basis in a purely conceptual reality is not a healthy thing!

 

If thinking is all about trying to change things (as it of course is) then clearly it can never connect us with the way that things actually are. This is the one thing thought can never do!  Thinking occurs in response to an ‘irritation’, we might say, and this irritation is ‘the way things actually are’. We’re ‘irritated’ by the world being the way that it is and we’re responding to the irritation with our thinking – our thinking is our attempt to soothe things, to ‘smooth things over’, to make things be a bit more comfortable (or ‘acceptable’) to us. If ‘the world being the way that it actually is’ is the irritation, then our constant thinking is the ointment or balm that we keep applying…

 

The world ‘being the way that it is’ is the itch and we are constantly scratching this itch, in other words. Oddly enough, therefore, we’re ‘scratching away’ all day long and we’ve grown so used to our constant habitual scratching that we no longer notice it. If we were totally at peace with ‘things being the way that they are’ then – needless to say – there would be no need to think. If everything was ‘perfect just as it is’ then we’d leave it the way that it is, obviously! We might think “Oh, this is perfect!” it is true, but then to think this would take us away from the perfection, not towards it. The thought actually detracts from the perfection rather than adding to it; it detracts because it takes us away from reality into the world of our thoughts, into the world of our ‘running commentary’! Who needs a commentary when the commentary detracts from what is being commentated on?

 

We might of course agree with this but then point out that everyday very rarely is ‘perfect’! We all know this very well! If life were perfect the whole time then this would be a different story and we wouldn’t need to be thinking all the time, but this is very much like saying ‘If pigs could fly’… This objection  – solid as it might seem at first glance – brings us back to the nub of what we started off by saying in this discussion – sometimes we come across ‘imperfections’ that both need to be (and can be) rectified and in this cases thinking is the right man for the job. But most of the time the so-called ‘imperfections’ can’t be fixed and actually don’t need to be fixed anyway. We only think that they are ‘imperfections’ and that they need to be fixed…

 

Generally speaking, what we automatically relate to as ‘irritants’ or ‘imperfections’ are seen as such purely as a result of our ‘arbitrarily-biased viewpoint’, purely as a result of our ‘likes and dislikes’ (or what mindfulness teacher Rob Nairn calls ‘our preferences’). This being the case, there is no real need to try to get the world to accord with our idea or it, our concept of it. The world is the way that it is (whatever that way is) all by itself, and there really is no necessity at all for us to take responsibility for it, as regards its ‘essential nature’. We clearly can’t do this – and even if we could (which would be a ridiculous notion) – that wouldn’t be a good thing. We don’t really know what we’re doing, after all, so why would we want to ‘put ourselves in charge’?

 

To control or regulate a few specific (or ‘bounded’) aspects of the world is one thing, and no one’s going to argue about the necessity to do this, but when we automatically try to try to control or regulate the whole of reality (without having a clue that this is what we are actually doing or why we might be wanting to do it) then this is another thing entirely. What we’re looking at here is the difference – we might say – between conscious and unconscious controlling. In ‘conscious controlling’ I do know what I am doing and why – it’s a practical thing that I’m doing here! I’m trying to obtain a pragmatically useful outcome such as ‘cooking the dinner’ or ‘avoiding a pothole in the road’. With ‘unconscious controlling’, as we have just said, I don’t know what I am doing or why I am trying to do it. I don’t even know that I am controlling, most of the time!

 

When I ‘m controlling and I know that I am then there’s a god chance that I will stop controlling once I have achieved what I want to achieve. When I’ve cooked the dinner I’ll let go of the idea of doing so; when I have successfully avoided the pothole in the road then I no longer have to strive to achieve this outcome! When I don’t know that I am controlling then how am I ever going to stop?  In this case we can say that ‘the controlling has taken over’ – the controlling has got the upper hand and it’s actually controlling me! The need to control is controlling me and so my constant controlling (or attempting to control) is really something that has been forced upon me. Very clearly, this is not a healthy state of affairs. Very clearly, no helpful outcome is ever going to be achieved as a result of ‘unconscious controlling’!

 

What we’re really talking about in this discussion is of course our thinking, and the unconscious habit that we have of ‘thinking all the time without paying attention to the fact that we are doing so’. Thinking and controlling are the same thing – we think in order to try to gain control and we can’t gain control without thinking. Just as runaway controlling can’t ever be helpful, neither can runaway thinking. How could runaway thinking ever possibly be ‘helpful’? We don’t even know what we trying to achieve with our thinking – we’re so lost in our thinking that most of the time we’re not even aware that we’re doing so. As Eckhart Tolle says, the human condition is to be ‘lost in thought’. Because we’re ‘lost in thinking’ there isn’t ever going to be an end to it!  When we’re ‘controlling for the sake of controlling’ then there’s no end to the controlling and when we’re ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’ then there’s never ever going to be any end to the thinking! We’re stuck on the treadmill of thought and we’re not going to get anything for it – there’s no prize, no jackpot, no bonus waiting for us at the other end…

 

When we are on the treadmill of runaway thinking then we’re disconnected from the world as it actually is in itself on a full-time basis. This doesn’t mean that we’re in a state of total dissociation (although this is of course a particular, extreme example of being disconnected), it just means that we’re living exclusively in the world of rational representations, which is the Conceptualized World (or ‘the world of our abstract ideas about reality’). The Conceptual World can match the real world so well (on a superficial level at least) that it is perfectly possible to get on in life and appear to be perfectly ‘well’ in ourselves, but there is nevertheless always going to be something important missing. What’s missing is the awareness of the actual freshness of life as it is in itself, which is an awareness that children have but which we as adults have almost entirely forgotten about. We lost our unconditioned awareness and we’re making do with conditioned consciousness instead, which will allow us to ‘go through the motions of life’ it is true, but as we go through the motions we nevertheless miss what life is really about. This constitutes a rather major ‘malaise’ therefore, and it’s a malaise that almost all of us are suffering from. It’s the malaise that comes about as a result of living life in a purely rational or conceptual way and the way it affects us is – as Jung says – in terms of ‘loss of meaning’.

 

We can live with this ‘loss of meaning’ because we can fill our lives with all sorts of empty distractions and entertainments (and this is exactly what we do do) but the price we pay is a lack of joy and peace in ourselves, a lack of any true ‘ease’. We may (and often do) deny this of course, and proclaim ourselves to be living happy and fulfilling lives but this is more of an image we feel obliged to project than anything else. If we’re all so fulfilled then why are more and more people presenting to doctors with anxiety and depression? Are we really as fulfilled as we like to say we are? Over-thinking means that our ‘quality of life’ has been tremendously degraded but because this has become ‘the norm’ no one ever remarks on it. What else do we have to go on, after all?

 

The percentage of the population suffering from depression and anxiety has been on the increase for the last sixty years and is expected to go on increasing, according to the World Health Organization, but still we go looking for an answer in all the wrong places. The medical approach suggests that it is mainly to do with our genes and how these genes affect our brain chemistry, for example. It certainly doesn’t suggest that our problem is that we all think too much! But how much simpler would it be if this was the reason – if this was the case we could all do something about it! We could start to become aware of our thinking for a start, and the more aware we become of our thinking the less it gets to control us…

 

 

Art: Mel Chin, Wake

 

 

 

 

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Living In The Bubble

The usual way for us to be in the world is within a sealed bubble of ‘positive pressure’. This might sound like a strange way of putting things on the first hearing, but all that we’re saying here is that we go around in daily life continuously ‘asserting ourselves’. That’s what we actually think life is all about! ‘Our-self’ is an idea and we have to keep on asserting it because the thing about ideas is that if we ever take a break from asserting them, then they stop being there. It’s like ‘putting on an act’ – an act won’t act itself so if we stop acting it then it simply won’t be there anymore! There will be no act.

 

Keeping up the act is a constant effort therefore, even if we don’t feel it; keeping up the idea of who we think we are is constant effort, even though it’s an effort that we’re so used to that we don’t usually notice it. When we are able to successfully assert our selves then we feel good, and when we aren’t able to we feel bad, and this just about sums up all we need to know about the self. People go on and on about ‘psychology’ but – really – when we understand this point then we see all that we need to see about the rules that govern our everyday existence. Contrariwise, if we don’t understand this point then we don’t really understand anything.

 

When things are going well for us and we are able to ‘successfully assert the self’ then this because is euphorically rewarding we don’t notice the effort of having to keep up the positive pressure; we’re getting the payback so we don’t register the unrelenting strain of what we are having to do. When on the other hand we aren’t able to successfully assert our idea of ourselves and this situation lasts for any appreciable length of time then of course we are not getting the payback – we are investing all the energy but we’re getting nowhere, we’re fighting a losing battle and in this case the strain of having to maintain the idea of ourselves does start to make itself known to us. Not only do we have the original suffering to contend with, but there is also the suffering of being aware of the thankless task of ‘having to maintain the bubble’.

 

To exist is to suffer, which is a rephrasing of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. This – which is clearly the part we have to understand first in the Buddhist message – has always been particularly unpalatable to our Western sensibilities! No matter what else we might be interested in hearing about in the Buddhist teachings, we don’t hear this. We might be super-keen on learning all there is to learn about mindfulness, for example, but we don’t really want to be brought face-to-face with the First Noble Truth, and we don’t really want to hear any mention of it made in any mindfulness course that we might sign up for. But if we don’t take this essential teaching on board (which, as the First Noble truth, we clearly have to) what good is anything we learn going to be to us?

 

The suffering of existence is the suffering of having to keep on asserting the self, come what may. It’s rather like a heavy wheelbarrow that we have to keep on pushing ahead of us wherever we go. Maintaining the self construct is the task that we have to keep on labouring at even though we don’t know that we are labouring at anything, and this ‘invisible’ (or ‘unconscious’) task is suffering. The only possible pay-off is the sense of gratification that we will get when we do the job satisfactorily, but this is simply ‘the pleasure of a slave who is rewarded doing his or her job well’! And then following on from the suffering of having to keep up the positive pressure the whole time, other secondary sources of suffering follow-on from this – ‘positive pressure’ equals aggression and aggression always rebounds  back onto us at some stage. Aggression always rebounds on the winner just as it always rebounds on the loser; both are operating on the basis of aggression – successfully in one case and unsuccessfully in the other. There’s no such thing as ‘successful aggression’, in other words – not when we take the long view. It’s just like talking about ‘successfully stretching a length of elastic band’ – we can stretch an elastic band only by storing up potential energy in the fabric of the material, potential energy that will one day have to be released again.

 

Sometimes (generally within the context of religion or morality) we try to deny the positive pressure mechanism because we recognise that ‘blind self-assertion no matter what’ (i.e. self-assertion as ‘an answer to everything’) isn’t ever going to help anyone, least of all ourselves, but when we try this all that happens is that we find ourselves trying to ‘use aggression to defeat aggression’. We might well feel good about ourselves if we think that we are succeeding at the task, but really we’re doing the same thing we are always doing – we’ve just twisted things around so that it so that what we doing seems justified and laudable in the name of ‘morality’. The amount of suffering created is even greater when we engage in this type of deliberate morality however because all that we’ve done is add another level of self-deception into the mix – somehow we imagine that by getting aggressive towards own fundamental aggression we have somehow ‘improved’ ourselves and are ‘better people’ as a result.

 

Another way in which the fundamental aggression of self-assertion gets turned against itself is when we become self-critical or self-recriminatory – what happens here is that the ‘positive pressure’ gets flipped back on itself to become ‘negative pressure’. We’re going around recriminating against ourselves and giving ourselves a hard time. Instead of spraying out our aggression onto the world wherever we go we are directing it against ourselves; we automatically devalidate and repress all of our impulses instead of automatically ‘acting them out’. When we turn our aggression against ourselves in this way (and get to feel that we are unworthy or ‘bad’) we suffer a lot more (or so it would seem) than a person who is always assuming that the fault or error lies outside of them, and who feels good about themselves on this account, but the essential suffering is still there. It’s plainly visible in the first case whilst hidden in the second. We are just running over everyone else with the heavily-laden wheelbarrow instead of letting it slip back down the hill and getting squashed under it ourselves instead. The wheelbarrow is doing damage either way.

 

Ultimately, there is no difference between positive and negative pressure – something artificial has been created either way. On the one hand we have the ‘justified’ sense of self, and on the other we have the ‘unjustified or unworthy sense of the self’. Both modalities work equally well – the self can just as easily see itself as being ‘always right’ as it can as being always wrong’ – these are simply the two sides of the same coin, the two sides of the artificial or contrived sense of self. We can change our metaphor slightly at this point and talk about a heavily-laden rickshaw instead of a wheel-barrow (the difference being of course that we can sit on a rickshaw and pedal it like a bicycle). There are two possibilities here therefore: one is where we are cycling the rickshaw down a long incline and so the weight we are carrying is actually working in our favour – we’re at the mercy of our own momentum but going in the right direction so we’re happy! We can just enjoy the ride… The other possibility is the less happy possibility where the effort to cycle the heavily laden rickshaw up the steep gradient becomes too much for us and we slip back down the hill going the opposite way to the way that we want to. We lose ground rather than gaining it. Because we perceive ourselves to be losing ground rather than gaining it (because we’re moving in a negative rather than the positive direction) we experience dysphoria rather than euphoria – it’s the reverse of what we want to see happening and yet to our dismay we can’t do anything about it. What the rickshaw metaphor shows us however is that the movement in question is a downhill movement in both cases! The movement of the self-concept is always downhill, whatever happens always happens mechanically. The self is a mechanical thing and it can’t ever behave in a way that is non-mechanical, and mechanical movement – by definition – is movement that is downhill. A rule is being obeyed and this means that we are heading towards an equilibrium state – we’re not going anywhere new, we’re not going anywhere that’s going to surprise us, we’re only ever going to stay trapped within the gravitational pull of the equilibrium system.

 

The ‘pressure’ that we started off talking about is a rule – rules are pressure because we have to obey them ‘no matter what’. The rule here is that the self (whenever that might be!) has to be asserted, has to be propagated, has to be maintained. When we obey this rule, when we obey this pressure, then we’re heading to the bottom of the hill, we’re heading straight towards the ultimate equilibrium state. Reacting to the relentless pressure to assert the self – as we always do react – never leads to anything new, very clearly! It’s not supposed to lead somewhere new – how can a rule following the rule lead us ‘somewhere new’? The whole point of a rule is that it won’t lead us somewhere new. The whole point of ‘the Task’ is that we fulfil that task, not that we do something different, something unrelated to the task, something that will lead us in a direction that is unrelated to the all-important fulfilment of that task.

 

What we are really talking about therefore, when we talk about ‘the task of asserting the self’, is simply fear of the new (or we just say ‘fear’, because all fear is ultimately ‘fear of the new’). So are we saying here is that psychological pressure – of whatever sort – equals fear. Fear denies life.  Fear denies life because life is always new, because life is always about ‘becoming something different’. The pressure we are obeying is the pressure to avoid life therefore and it doesn’t matter whether the pressure in question is positive or negative. The true nature of the task that we are engaged in (without knowing that we are) is the task of avoiding life, in other words. Succeeding at the task is therefore perpetuating the basic problem, perpetuating the fundamental source of our suffering.

 

What we can’t understand is that life ISN’T a task, and that ‘being who we are’ ISN’T a task either. How can ‘being who we are’ be a task? How did we ever fall into the trap of believing such a thing? What sort of craziness is that? And if life isn’t a task then this perceived necessity to keep on struggling as hard as we can  to maintain the bubble of ‘the positively-defined self’ is the biggest (and most costly) misunderstanding that it is possible for us to make!

 

 

 

 

 

The Long-Cut

Everybody’s interested in the short-cut, but no one’s interested in the ‘long-cut’. So what’s the ‘long-cut’, we might ask? What is it and why on earth should we be interested in it? It doesn’t sound particularly interesting after all. Who would want to go the long way around things if there was a shorter and quicker alternative? That doesn’t sound very smart!

 

The ‘long-cut’ – we might say – is our life as it actually is, and as soon as we say this we can see why we might not be very interested in it. We might be interested in theory perhaps – in theory it sounds fine, as a kind of noble ideal – but in practice definitely not. In practice it’s a very different matter entirely.  In practice we are constantly trying to avoid our life as it actually is in whatever way we can. In practice, we’re always looking for ‘a short-cut’. In practice we are always looking for ‘something else’, something shinier…

 

‘Short cutting’ life means skipping over the difficult bits, the ‘not so good bit’, the ‘boring’ bits, the bits we don’t like and jumping ahead to the good bits, the interesting bits, the bits we do like. This is what M. Scott Peck means when he talks about wanting to eat the icing on the cake before we eat the cake itself. We do this all of the time of course – we try to separate the bits we like from the bits we don’t. This is what attachment means, and who amongst us is free from attachment (or ‘like and dislike’)? Our normal everyday way of relating to the world is in terms of attraction versus aversion, which Buddhists sometimes call ‘the mind of preference’. Some things we like and try to get more of whilst other things we dislike and try to get less of, which seems almost too obvious to point out. But what we don’t see is the automatic (or unfree) nature of this tendency – if we experience attraction to something then it is ‘automatic’ that we try to get more of it and the same is true in reverse for what we are averse to. The ‘judgement’ (good or bad) and the purposeful or goal-orientated action that follows on from this are all of one piece. ‘Judgement’ and ‘reaction’ are both aspects of the same mechanical movement and this mechanical movement is completely non-volitional, no matter what we might believe to the contrary.

 

What this means therefore is that there are parts of our life that we like and try to optimize and other parts that we dislike (or don’t particularly care for) and these we try to minimize as much as possible. We live in an uneven fashion – we ‘play favourites’, so to speak. This very pronounced tendency to favour some aspects of our life at the expense of other is what we have referred to as ‘short-cutting’; we’re actually impatient with life – we’re impatient with life precisely because we’re always trying to skip ahead to the good bits. Short-cutting is of course considered by all and sundry as a very sensible thing to do; we could go so far as to say that we see this as being what life is all about – separating the bits we like from the bits that we don’t like. With regard to life in general we call this ‘being positive’ or ‘being goal-orientated’ whilst with regard to our mental health we call it ‘self-development’ or ‘self-improvement’. We’re striving to optimize the good stuff, we’re trying to ‘actualize the positive’, etc, etc. This is pop-psychology in a nutshell; it’s also regular psychology in a nutshell too. Our clever so-called ‘therapies’ are patented ways of separating the good from the bad, the desired from the undesired – they are all ‘short-cuts,’ in other words. Naturally our therapies are short-cuts; inasmuch as a therapy is directed towards a goal it is a short-cut! Anything that is directed towards a goal is a short-cut and we in the West don’t really understand anything else. ‘Goals’ is all we get…

 

The question that arises here of course is ‘What’s wrong with ‘jumping ahead’ from painful states of mind to less painful ones, particularly if it looks like we can do something about it? What’s wrong with having this as a goal? Why would we want to stay in the pain?’ This is a hard thing to understand, and the chances are that we won’t be particularly motivated to want to try to understand it, either. Pain doesn’t cause us to be reflective after all, it causes us to act on reflex, it causes us to run away as fast as we can! We have a fear that deep there is some part of us that wants to wallow in the pain and so naturally we don’t want to encourage this type of unhealthy wallowing. The trouble with our reflexive tendency to want to skip the difficult or painful parts of our life is however that they are just as legitimate as the parts that we do like and so if we try to bypass them they’re just going to come back and haunt us. We’re then going to be caught up in continual avoidance, continual fruitless struggling, continual ‘running away’. Our regular ‘fixing’ approach to painful states of mind embroils us in a non-terminating game of ‘Whac-a-mole’ therefore – we keep on whacking the mole as hard as we can with the mallet whenever he pushes his nose up and then he immediately appears from another hole. We can whack the hell out of the mole on a full-time basis if we want but we’re never going to get anywhere by it!

 

The short-cut isn’t so much of a short-cut after all really – it only appears to be and that’s what keeps us tied into it. Playing the ‘Whac-a-mole’ game also drastically reduces our perspective on matters to ‘the next mole’ and then ‘the next mole after that’ so we not even going to be able to see where we’re going wrong. We won’t have any insight into what’s really going on at all. Understanding that continually whacking the mole on the head every time he turns up isn’t a fruitful approach isn’t a ‘pessimistic’ or ‘hopeless’ sort of a thing at all therefore, even though it will of course seem so from the perspective of the entrenched game-player. Seeing through the ‘short-cuts’ is actually a profoundly liberating sort of thing – it might seem negative to our regular goal-orientated state of mind but negative is actually the only thing that is ever going to work here! ‘Negative’ is good, ‘negative’ is liberating; it’s the not-doing that’s going to save us, not the doing…

 

Not one of the problems that we have in this world was ever solved, says Omar Khayyam, but this isn’t a pessimistic or despairing thing to say. Omar Khayyam isn’t loved and celebrated as a mystic philosopher throughout the world because of his gift for pessimism! The point is that we don’t have to do anything about these problems. The problems in question pertain exclusively to the conditioned state of being – they are absolutely inescapable just so long as we exist in the conditioned world, the conditioned state of being. The ‘problems’ and ‘the conditioned state of being’ are the same thing and we can’t have one without the other. We can’t have conditioned existence with the ‘snags’ that comes with it and yet we never give up the hope that we can do and this is where our blindness lies…

 

We spend all out time trying to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ the conditioned state of being so that we can remain safely within it and yet not suffer from the snags that come along with it, the snags and short-comings that actually are it. If someone comes along and says to us that the snags and short-comings can’t be fixed then we won’t be very impressed. We won’t be very favourably disposed to them. We want to hear some nice positive technical fixing language, we want to be told that the impossible thing we want to achieve actually is possible and there are no shortage of experts will to tell us this! If someone like Omar Khayyam comes along and tells us that during our time in this world we are not going to be able to solve even one of our problems then we’re going to be downright pissed-off. We want positive messages, not negative ones and if someone with integrity comes along and tells us something helpful we’re going to want to string them up!

 

We completely fail to see the liberating nature of what they are saying, the liberating nature of the ‘negative message’, which is that we don’t need to fix the problems because they don’t pertain to who we really are but only to who we have artificially made ourselves to be. The snags and short-comings that we are railing against don’t exist in reality, only in the false ‘constrained’ version of reality that we have adapted ourselves to and taken as ‘final’. Any talk of the ‘short-cut’ of finding peace and happiness whilst still imagining ourselves to be who we aren’t, whilst still remaining in the falsely ‘constrained’ version of reality isn’t helpful at all therefore, but the very reverse of this. Samsara is made up of these ‘false rumours of short-cuts’!

 

Once we can clearly see that any hope we might be harbouring of one day ‘finding a short-cut’ is actually the root cause of our suffering then this leaves us with the ‘long-cut’. We come back to the long-cut, which was waiting patiently there for us all the time, after a life-time’s obsession with finding a short-term fix. What then is the long-cut, we might ask? What is the long-cut and how do we go about finding it? These are of course purely rhetorical questions when it comes down to it since the long-cut is, as we said right at the beginning of this discussion, ‘our life as it actually is’. We don’t therefore need to go searching for it, the way we might go searching for a ‘magic answer’ or ‘magic fix’ – we don’t need to go searching for it because it was there all along. We don’t need to learn any special methods to actualize this state of affairs; any cleverness or artifice is quite beside the point. Any cleverness or artifice is actually the very devil, any cleverness or artifice is actually ‘the short-cut’!

 

The ‘point’ – we might say – is not that the long-cut is hard to find but rather that we don’t want to find it. We don’t value it; it is worthless to us. Nothing is of less interest to us ‘as our life as it actually is’; nothing is of less interest to us than our life as it actually is because we’re always looking for something special, because we always looking for something glittering and attractive. We might of course come out with fine self-affirming statements about loving our lives or loving ourselves but we don’t really mean it – we love our ideas of life, we love our ideas of ourselves and this isn’t the same thing at all. The truth of the matter is that we love our distractions, because that’s what thought and ideas are. We love the games that we play. And yet even this isn’t really true – we don’t really love our games and distractions any more than an addict loves his addiction. We need it but we don’t love it. If something is compulsory, then how can we ‘love’ it? All we can do is adapt to it as best we can and say that we love it, but that is a far cry from actually loving ourselves or our lives. It is actually pure theatre – theatre that we feel obliged to buy into because we can’t see any alternative…

 

The long-cut doesn’t mean that we should be ‘appreciative of our lives’ or that we should ‘feel gratitude for what we have’ or anything like that – it doesn’t mean that we ‘should’ anything. It doesn’t even mean that we should be ‘authentic’ because as soon as we think we need to be authentic we cease to be so. As soon as we think we ought to be anything we cease being authentic, so it’s useless thinking about it. To ‘be authentic’ would be to accept that one is inauthentic rather than trying to change things. This is like the jinx of ‘being good’ – if I try to be good then I am automatically not good. I’m pretending, and pretending to be good isn’t being good. I’m actually being false if I try to be good! ‘Trying’ has nothing to do with it because ‘trying’ is just a reflex reaction to avoid what we don’t like. ‘Trying’ just means looking for a short-cut!

 

One good way of talking about the long-cut is to say that it is when we are not looking for results, therefore. This is the philosophy propounded in the Bhagavad Gita – one acts, and acts wholeheartedly, but one does not orientate oneself towards the result of the action. We don’t hang around waiting for the fruit of our action to drop into our lap, which means that there’s no possibility of satisfaction for the ego happening here. The long-cut isn’t actually going anywhere, in other words, and this is what is so hard for us to understand about it. The long-cut isn’t actually any sort of ‘cut’, long or short. Challenges arise and we respond to them, but this is not done for any sort of a reason, because it is ‘good’ or ‘right’ to do so, or anything like that. There’s no sort of model or theory to what we’re doing. In the most succinct terms, therefore, the point is that what we have called ‘the long-cut’ is simply us living our life as it happens. The long-cut is just ‘living one’s life’ in other words and to express it like this tends to come across as rather an anticlimax. It’s something of a let-down to hear this because we were expecting something special! We were actually wanting to learn something fancy but there’s nothing fancy here, nothing for the thinking mind to grab hold of. This may not be anything fancy, anything clever, but simply ‘living one’s life as it happens’ is all the same the greatest challenge that there could ever be. This is the ultimate ‘secret’ of everything; this is the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’…

 

 

 

 

The Mind-Produced Sense of Self

If we aren’t this brittle, insecure sense of self then who are we? This brittle and permanently insecure sense may not be much, but it all we’ve got, after all! It definitely isn’t all that much fun being tied as we are to the mind-produced sense of the self but there doesn’t seem to be any choice about it – the ‘sense of self’ that we’re talking about goes hand-in-hand with the sense that we ‘can’t do anything about it’. That’s what it means to be a self after all – it means that ‘this is who we are’. There’s no freedom involved in this, there’s no freedom involved in this business of ‘me being who I am’. How could there possibly be any freedom in it?

 

And yet there is. We only feel ourselves to be who the mind says we are because we believe in what we’re told, because we believe in the narrow little viewpoint that we have been given by the thinking mind, which is the viewpoint of the conditioned self. We’ve been shoe-horned into this tiny little slot, this tiny little compartment and because we’ve had all our perspective surgically removed by the procedure we think that this is our only possibility. You could sit me down and talk to me about it for a year and I’d still think that it was my only possibility – that’s how powerful the illusion is. As far as I’m concerned there isn’t the slightest trace or hint of a question about it (about the fact that I am this brittle, insecure sense of self) and so all I can do is ‘just get on with it’. All I can do is try to make a go of it and attempt – to the very best of my ability – to focus on the good times and ignore the bad ones…

 

The crucial point is however that this isn’t who we are – it never was and it never could be, no matter what delusions we might hold to the contrary. As soon as we have the awareness, no matter how faint, that this brittle insecure sense of self isn’t who we are then this introduces a completely new ‘note’ into the picture – the note of freedom! It’s not that having this crucial awareness necessitates us ‘doing anything about it’, just knowing it changes everything forever. We don’t need to do anything. The awareness itself is the freedom. We can’t actually be aware of anything without this freedom because without being free from the delusion that we are this brittle, insecure mind-produced sense of self what we think is ‘awareness’ isn’t anything of the sort – it is awareness that has been conditioned by our narrow viewpoint and conditioned awareness is enslaved awareness, awareness that isn’t free to see reality. We can’t be aware of the world as it is in itself when we see everything from the point of view of the mind-produced sense of self because all we see is ‘the world as it appears to this unreal viewpoint’. We haven’t the freedom to see anything else – all we can ever do is ‘react in accordance with what the conceptual mind shows us’. All we can ever do is react. Reacting is not the same as ‘being aware’ but reacting is the only possibility that the MPSOS ever has open to it. It can react this way or it can react that way but ‘not-reacting’ is simply not an option. It can choose X or it can choose Y but it cannot forebear from choosing…

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we are in the ‘identified’ state everything we do has to be done on purpose. Everything we do when we are ‘identified with the idea that we have of ourselves’ is necessarily purposeful. For this reason we can refer to the MPSOS as the purposeful self. The purposeful self always operates in relation to ‘a plan’ – this plan (or model) may be highly sophisticated or it may be as rudimentary as they come but there has to be a plan of some sort. There has to be some sort of ‘fixed basis’ (or framework) for what we do and what we think. With regard to our ‘plan’ (i.e. our ‘idea about what we want and what we don’t want’) outcomes are of course always going to be seen as being either ‘right’ or being ‘wrong’. All situations or eventualities are always going to be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ therefore and the point here is that when something is automatically seen as either good or bad, and reacted to accordingly, then there is no freedom in this situation. If an outcome is ‘good’ then we react to secure it, and if it is ‘bad’ then we react to avoid it or push it away. ‘Reacting’ simply means ‘acting without freedom’ in other words. We are acting in a way that has been predetermined by our compartmentalized way of seeing and thinking about the world, which we are not free to question. We the slaves of the categories that we are obliged to operate within, without even appreciating that they are only mind-created ‘categories’.

 

The purposeful self always acts without freedom precisely because it is the ‘purposeful self’ therefore; it has no freedom precisely because it always has to be acting for one purpose or another, and these purposes are simply ‘mental categories’. We could also (and equivalently) say that the purposeful self always acts without freedom because it is always operating from within its dualistic view of the world. ‘Dualistic’ simply means that we see the world as being essentially divided between two polar extremes such as ‘right versus wrong’ or ‘good versus bad’ – either a thing is one way or the other, either you are a friend or an enemy, either you are for us or against us, either you’re a true believer or you’re a godless heathen, etc. Actually, there is always another possibility and that is that we really don’t care in the slightest one way or the other but the possibility ‘sublimely uncommitted to either pole’ is not acknowledged to have any existence within the dualistic framework. Everything has to be ‘polarized’ because that’s the narrow way in which we understand things. Just as long as we see the world through our thoughts we are always going to be looking at things from a dualistic viewpoint. Thought is always dual. Thought is always dual because thought is based on categories and categories are based on boundaries. A boundary is ‘duality in a nutshell’ because it is nothing other than ‘right versus wrong’, ‘good versus bad’, ‘in versus out’. It’s a line that has been drawn, a line that marks out what is included on the one side, and what is excluded on the other…

 

So the upshot of all this is that the purposeful self has no freedom even though it thinks that it does. The purposeful self doesn’t actually understand freedom – it understands freedom in an upside-down way and this is the only way it can understand it. For the PS, freedom is when it can realize its goals, or ‘successfully enact its purposes’. What it doesn’t (and can’t) see is that these purposes were never ‘free’ in the first place – they are merely categories that have been foisted upon us. We can’t see that we aren’t the PS until we have the freedom to see this, and yet the precise point that we are making here is that it doesn’t have any freedom. That’s how the purposeful self gets to be the purposeful self – by not having any freedom in it! It’s essentially a game that we play and – as James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games – we can only play a game when we give up our freedom, and put ourselves in the situation where we can’t see that the game is only a game. What this means is that when we do see that we aren’t this brittle, insecure mind-produced sense of self then this is because freedom has come back into the picture. We can’t say that ‘freedom comes back into the picture when we see that we’re not the MPSOS’ because we can’t see that until we have freedom! There isn’t a causal relationship going on here. Without freedom, as we have said, we can’t have genuine awareness of anything. Freedom doesn’t come about as a result of anything we do therefore – freedom isn’t one of the purposes of the purposeful self! Freedom isn’t a category – it’s when we don’t have to conform or submit to any mind-produced categories, and this state of affairs isn’t itself a category!

 

Freedom doesn’t happen as an outcome or result of any causal relationship and causal relationships are all the purposeful self understands. We can’t understand how the process happens but that doesn’t actually matter – the important thing is that it does happen, not how. Freedom does come back into the picture; somehow consciousness separates itself from the personality construct and until this separation takes place we will have no genuine awareness of anything – we will only have this thing that we have called ‘conditioned awareness’, which is not awareness at all but its inverted analogue. We can’t be aware of what’s going on because we’re seeing everything through the ‘coercive lens’ of duality, which represents everything to us as in terms of polar opposites. We’re trapped in the dualistic illusion and we have no way of knowing that it is an illusion – we don’t suspect that anything odd or peculiar is going on at all, despite the fact that we’re living in a world that has no freedom in it at all.

 

Once we have had the first insight into what genuine freedom is (and have seen that freedom is simply not possible for the conditioned or purposeful self) then the illusion is broken. Things can never be the same after this, even though the power of the dualistic trap is such that it will keep on dragging us back into it. Moments of freedom will come and go and as we become more acquainted with freedom they will come more frequently. Our ‘connection’ to the awareness that we are not this brittle, insecure mind-produced self may be unreliable but – as we have said – once we have had it then this changes everything. The two situations are fundamentally different – in the first case, which is the situation where we have never had any awareness at all that there is a radically different way of looking at things then the appreciation that there is this thing called ‘unconditional freedom’ (which is so is so very different to anything we have ever known before) simply does not exist. You couldn’t explain it to me, no matter how you tried. We only ever see freedom in completely false terms – we only ever see it in terms of us being able to act out our attachments, in terms of us being able to do what we are being compelled to do, whilst not seeing that we are being compelled. How very far from genuine freedom this is, and yet it is nevertheless the ‘closest’ thing to freedom that we will ever get.

 

In the second situation no matter what happens we know on some level or other that what we want to do (or want to see happen) we only want because we are being compelled or coerced to want, and this turns everything around completely – even if we still can’t help being coerced! We don’t believe in this coercion in the same way that we used to and so it no longer has the absolute power over us that it used to. We know (on some level or other) that it doesn’t really matter if we don’t get what we want to get – we have a degree of equanimity, therefore. We no longer take the game quite as seriously as we used to, in other words, and when a game is no longer taken seriously this dramatically changes the nature of the game. It’s a game changer! As we were saying earlier, when we no longer take a game absolutely seriously then it no longer works as a game. The bubble has burst – freedom has come back into the picture. This addition of this one little ingredient is enough to radically change our view of everything, including ourselves…

 

Having had a glimpse of what freedom really is allows us to appreciate just how terrible it is to have no freedom, and to have to live life on this basis. How is such a thing even possible, we might wonder? How is it possible to live life on a totally false basis, where we think that we are this brittle, fundamentally insecure, mind-produced sense of self, this sense of self that comes complete with its own inbuilt dualistic distortion which compels us to see the world (and ourselves) in a way that isn’t true, in a way that we get helplessly trapped in? How can we live in this world where all freedom has been taken away, and still manage to ‘make a go of it’? Nothing we see is true, nothing we think is true, and nothing we do is ‘true’ either since we are being compelled to do it! The things that matter to us very much (our attachments) don’t matter to us at all really – they only matter to the false, brittle, insecure sense of self which is who we think we are. Why these things matter so much to the false sense of self is very easy to explain – the MPSOS is insecure not just because it isn’t who we are but also because it isn’t who anyone is and because it absolutely has to compensate for this underlying it greatly values whatever will validate its position, just as it demonizes anything that devalidates (or threatens to show up) the lie that it takes so seriously. When we take up a false or arbitrary position without knowing that we are then the world immediately gets divided into those things that validate us and those things that do the opposite of validating us – the world is divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in other words. We think that good and bad have an objective existence out there in the world around us but really they are only functions of our deluded viewpoint!

 

The mind-produced sense of self is insecure for a very good reason – there’s no way that it couldn’t be insecure – and out of this irreducible insecurity arise all its attachments, both positive and negative. All of its activities exist for the sake of compensating for its unacknowledged insecurity – nothing else really interests it! Because of its insecurity the MPSOS has to be forever trying as hard as it can to acquire validations for itself and avoid de-validations. These are our attachments – these are the things that matter so much to the false sense of self but don’t matter at all in the bigger scheme of things since who really cares if an illusory sense of self gets validated or not? Nothing the FSOS does (as a result of trying to enact its purposes) makes sense really. Everything it does is all for the purpose of proving that what isn’t true actually is true, and where’s the sense in this? The FSOS is forever trying to assert itself, and ‘itself’ isn’t true! We don’t see any of this when we are identified with the false sense of self however – it has us completely hoodwinked and we never even come close to seeing through it. We’ve fallen under its spell completely. We don’t know what the mind-produced sense of self is really up to with all its activities and what’s more, we are extremely unlikely to ever find out. It could be said that this is the best-kept secret of all – there never was a better kept secret than this! The profoundest ignorance there ever was is reserved for this matter; the darkest of all shadows falls over this secret business of ‘what the false sense of self’ is really up to with all its manoeuvrings. It ‘puts us off the scent every single time’…

 

We are ‘put off the scent’ by having attachments, either positive or negative, dangled in front of us. Either there’s something there that we very much want to acquire, or there’s something there that we very much want to get away from. Either way, as soon as we start reacting we unwittingly create a smokescreen that stops us seeing through to what our true motivation is, which is to avoid seeing the truth about our true nature. Because we put so much effort into avoiding seeing our true nature we never do, and so we’re stuck full-time with this brittle, insecure sense of self. That’s what we’re fighting to protect, after all! We’re fighting full-time to protect an illusion and ‘protecting an illusion’ means precisely that we never allow ourselves to seeing that it is one. The irony is therefore that we are fighting against ourselves the whole time – we are in a very real sense ‘our own worst enemy’ because we are insisting on a false form of freedom that is actually the antithesis of the genuine article. We’re cherishing this brittle, insecure sense of self and so – by doing this – we are cherishing what can never be any more than a life of frustration and misery. We will know occasional moments of true happiness and peace and joy it is true – but what we completely fail to understand is that these moments are the moments that happen when we momentarily (and quite accidentally) forget to cherish the mind-produced sense of self…

 

 

 

 

The Exclusive Existence of the Conditioned Self

Whatever we plan for, hope for, anticipate, dread, whatever we imagine life to have in store for us, whatever we feel life to mean to us, or signify to us, we do on the basis of a conception of ourselves that is entirely wrong, entirely lacking in any truth at all. We do all of this planning, hoping, anticipating, dreading, imagining, etc, on the basis of us having some kind of ‘private’ existence, some kind of existence that is ours alone, an existence which no one else can share. “For the waking there is one common world, but when asleep each person turns away to a private one.” says, Heraclitus [Fragment 22]. This is an ‘exclusive’ type of a life therefore – it is a life that we lead in exclusion of everyone else. We live as if we alone truly have a life, as if ours alone is the only life that truly matters…

 

We will of course strenuously object to this suggestion – it sounds very much as if we are being accused of being narcissist or a psychopath, or something of that sort, and naturally this is not something that we would want to go along with. There is no kudos in being narcissistically self-absorbed and callously indifferent to the lives of all other human beings! Our objections are disingenuous however; we all know well enough that there is a core of truth in this ‘accusation’. It is very much inherent in the actual nature of the concrete self to only really value its own private or exclusive existence – that pretty much goes with the territory. That’s pretty much what everyday egoic existence is all about – that’s the nature of experience that comes with this mode of being in the world…

 

Intellectually, we know that other people exist and have lives that matter and so we are generally respectful of this to some degree or other (although not always, obviously) but this does not mean that we experience other peoples’ lives as being ‘just as real as ours’ – clearly we don’t. As we have said, the experience of ‘being this self’ is the same thing as ‘not being any other self’. This is necessarily an exclusive rather than an inclusive kind of a thing; there is no such thing as an inclusive self, a self that includes everything – there was then that wouldn’t be ‘a self’, it would be reality, which but its nature is unbounded, undivided, unfragmented. The mechanics of the self involves ‘not-self’, just as the mechanics of UP always involves DOWN.

 

All of this talk of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ and ‘psychopathy’ is therefore a bit of a red herring. The ego – by its very nature – is a purse narcissist, a pure psychopath. We just don’t to see this because we are committed to that modality of existence, and so we have to make the best of it. We have to put the best possible spin on it that we can, and part of this spin involves demonizing anyone who makes obvious to us all these less-attractive aspects of selfhood. The state of ‘being a self’ is the state of being an encapsulated and therefore fundamentally alienated narcissist and there is no point being squeamish about this. There are of course varying degrees to which consciousness gets trapped in the capsule of the self – we can be partially free from this grim prison in our everyday lives – but if we imagine (as we do) that the self could ever be ‘non-narcissistic’ or ‘non-psychopathic’ in its essential nature then we are simply fooling ourselves…

 

Once we have got this straight (and we’re not going to get anywhere until we do) then we have at the same time got another thing straight too – we are now able to appreciate the true absurdity of our position as conditioned egos, which comes about as we have said because of the way in which we have been unwittingly compelled to live our lives on a completely false basis. As we started off this discussion by saying, we are – whether we want to admit it or not – living (on some deep unacknowledged level) as if our life were the only one that is truly real, the only one that really counts. Each one of us is doing this (we’re all doing this in tandem) and that’s what conditioned existence is all about! Living life on this basis however guarantees that our so-called ‘life’ will not be real. Life lived within the closed remit of the rational-conceptual mind (which is the same thing as life lived as a compartmentalized self) is always unreal.

 

Consciousness is not exclusive, only the thinking mind is exclusive in its operation and the thinking mind is not who we are. How can the thinking mind be who we are when it is only a device that we are using, when it is only a way of arbitrarily organizing things? The thinking mind is a pattern of organization but who we are is not this arbitrary pattern but what it is that is being organized. We are the medium not the waves that are being propagated through that medium; we are consciousness itself, not the thoughts or ideas or memories that consciousness facilitates. Consciousness is always whole, never divided. Because it is always whole it has no ‘selves’ within it! It is quite ‘selfless’ in other words although using this term tends to confuse matters because it sounds like some sort of lofty moral stance that we are taking; it sounds like some kind of ‘moral attainment’. Selflessness most definitely isn’t a moral attainment however because the only one who could be ‘attaining’ anything is the one we are trying to get rid of! The only one who could be attaining anything is the self and the self can hardly be expected to attain the state of selflessness, very obviously!  This would be like a fish learning how to be ‘unfish’, as Wei Wu Wei says.

 

What this means is that the whole of what we call ‘morality’ and ‘moral behaviour’ is really just a preposterous façade. It’s a big joke that we’re just not getting. It’s the narcissist pretending to be non-narcissistic; it’s the psychopath pretending to care! This is hardly going to prove to be a very popular viewpoint on things but that’s purely because our allegiance lies squarely with the ‘comforting illusion’ rather than the inconvenient truth. This isn’t a cynical approach however – we’re not saying that people are at root psychopaths or narcissists but rather that when we operate on the basis of thought (which inevitably entails imagining ourselves to be this compartmentalized or isolated ‘self’) then we can’t really care about anything other than this ‘self that we mistakenly think we are’. It’s not that we can’t be genuinely caring and compassionate, just that we can’t be genuinely caring and compassionate at the same time as being the ‘compartmentalized’ or ‘mind-created self’!

 

The mind-created self possesses no virtues, much as it likes to imagine that it does. It has no virtues because it has no freedom – very clearly there can be no virtue without freedom. If I am being compelled to do whatever it is that I am doing without seeing that I am being compelled then nothing that I do has any ‘virtue’ because nothing that I do has anything to do with who I actually am! This is not too hard to see if we want to see it – if I am pretending to be somebody without letting on to myself that I am doing this, then how could anything that I am doing on this false basis ever be said to be truly virtuous (speaking in the Daoist sense here rather than the conventional Christian sense)? Nothing can come out of a false basis other than further falsehoods, nothing can come of a lie except more lies…

 

Virtue can only arise from who we really are, not from the mask that we are wearing without knowing that we are wearing it. The mask (or persona) cannot care and it cannot genuinely mean anything it says; sincerity is not a possibility for the persona (since it is nothing else but a pose or posture that we have arbitrarily struck) and if there is no sincerity then clearly no virtue can ever arise. We have created an arid situation, therefore. The mind-created self (which is a mere mechanism) can’t really feel, it can’t really care, it can’t ever be genuinely happy and it can never know true peace… P.D. Ouspensky says something to the effect that wherever anger, jealousy, pride, bitterness etc arise, this always points directly to the existence of what he calls ‘the false personality’; the false personality can experience only the lower emotions (‘the six poisons’ in Buddhism and Vedanta) – the higher emotions (for example, love, humour, compassion, awe, sympathetic joy) only being possible when we transcend this concrete self.

 

If there is one thing that we can be sure of it is this – the conditioned identity doesn’t want to know the truth about itself. It doesn’t want to know that it is unfree and that everything it thinks and does is simply the result of it slavishly obeying one mechanical impulse after another. To know this would be to have the bubble of apparent autonomy burst and without this bubble functioning correctly the self cannot continue believing in itself. In order to hide the unpalatable truth of our profound lack of autonomy from ourselves what we do is that we align ourselves completely with each mechanical impulse that comes along; we make the immediate fulfilment of the mechanical impulse the most important thing in the world to us and this is how we create the illusion of self! The self equals ‘the arbitrary imposition of extrinsic order upon the world’ and just as long as we refuse to question or examine just what exactly we are doing here the outrageous absurdity of our conditioned existence is kept safely invisible to us.

 

The absurdity derives from the fantasy image that we have of ourselves, as Gurdjieff. In this fantasy-version of reality we possess all the virtues (or ‘qualities’) that make life worthwhile, that make life actually liveable. We possess free volition and sincerity, we are able to feel love or compassion for other people, we have the possibility of being genuinely happy or peaceful, we have the possibility of connecting with the world around us, and with the people around us; we have the capacity of ‘behaving unselfishly’, and so on. All of this is fantasy however; as long as we are identified with the mind-created self none of this is even remotely true; it’s true for who we really are but not for who we think we are. Buying into this convenient fantasy package means therefore that we have made truth into our adversary; we can only serve one master after all – either we serve the truth or we serve the protective fantasy….

 

This is – as we need hardly point out – an utterly ridiculous situation to get caught up in. Either we live the incredibly constrained (if not to say entirely futile) life of the narcissistically encapsulated self-concept which is forever trying to prove that it is more than it actually is (and more than it ever could be) or we live a life in which we genuinely can be more than just the encapsulated bubble of the unreal private self. These are the two possibilities and – somehow – it is the first one that we have opted for, and steadfastly continue to opt for. It isn’t of course right to represent this as some sort of straightforward ‘choice that we make’ – if it was then it would be very hard (to say the least) so see why we would ever go for option number one, which is, as we have said, where we have to struggle continuously (in what is actually an entirely futile fashion) to achieve something for ourselves that we can never actually have. If this was what life was all about and there was nothing else for it but to create  – as best we can – a fantasy life for ourselves in which we can get somewhere worthwhile on the basis of ‘the encapsulated self’, then that would perhaps be a different matter. But this is not the case – we always do have the ‘option’ (so to speak) of moving towards reality (and all the ‘virtues’ or ‘qualities’ it contains) instead of moving away from it in the direction of ever-increasing futility, sterility and self-deception.

 

If this were a straightforward choice between ‘option 1’ and ‘option 2’ then it would be something of a ‘no-brainer’, as the popular parlance has it, but the whole point of conditioned (or unconscious) life is that we don’t see anything clearly, least of all the path that we have unwittingly opted to go down, which is ‘the path of suffering’.  A perfect example of our blindness is our approach to mental health, which always involves the attempt to repair and return to its proper functioning the everyday conditioned self, which is the self that it made up of nothing other than an arbitrary collection of limits which we have, out of unacknowledged fear, attached ourselves to. The life of this self – which can never honestly relate to anything or anyone, for fear of ‘bursting its own bubble’ – is always going to be prominently blighted with suffering and frustration, no matter how much we try to cover it up and live – as a pain-avoiding strategy – entirely superficially as ‘an image in image world’. This is of course the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which states that conditioned life is suffering (or dukka); this does not means that life itself is bound to be filled with frustration and pain (which is how the ‘Truth of Suffering’ very much tends to be understood in the ego-orientated West) but simply that the life of the conditioned or partitioned self is always going to be fundamentally unsatisfactory. If we were to cease to identify ourselves so rigidly with our walls, our boundaries, our tight definitions of who or what we are, then life would become much more than it currently is – we would not be arbitrarily it and so of course it would become much more than it currently is!

 

Our whole approach in mental health is however – as we have just said – to repair the ego-self, this isolated (and therefore alienated) narrow notion of who we are. If our problem, as Wei Wu Wei says, is one of ‘mistaken identity‘, then all we’re doing is re-affirming the mistake! then All of our therapies, all of our methods, all of our technologies are about repairing the sense of ourselves as separate isolated (or ‘exclusive’) egos so that we can go back to the consensus world that we have created for ourselves, which is a world made up entirely of ‘ego-games’, a world made up of pointless games for the ego to play….

 

The bottom line is that our hidden agenda – as a collective, as a society – isn’t to heal people or support them on a journey towards their own wholeness, their own individuation. As Robert Anton Wilson says, this was never the aim of any society! Our aim or agenda as a society is always simply to perpetuate the system, to keep it going no matter what price this may require in terms of human suffering. Society has a vested interest in fixing us when we get too unhappy to be able to function in it anymore, but it has no interest at all in our actual mental health. This consumerism-based world of ours actually needs us to be narcissists in order for it to continue functioning, as many commentators (see for example Tim Kasser in this article in the Huffington Post) have said…

 

We may not be having that much fun (in any real sense) but we carry on with the insecurity-driven ego-games that we’re playing all the same and whilst this may not do us any good at all, it’s good for this thing called ‘the economy’! The point is then, that we’re not living life for ourselves (for ourselves as we really are, underneath the facade) but rather that we’re living life for the facade, and this facade isn’t actually a real thing…

 

 

Art: Auguste Toulmouche – Vanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health Isn’t A Strategy

Collectively speaking, we have a very peculiar idea about what mental health entails, or should look like. What we see as good mental health isn’t healthy at all – it would be more accurately referred to as ‘a precarious illusion that we are obliged to spend our lives trying to prop up’. When we are able to successfully prop up this pain-producing illusion then we call this ‘being mentally healthy’ and when we can’t maintain the illusion any more then we say that this isn’t healthy and that we need help. Our idea of what constitutes mental health is completely back-to-front, therefore! We couldn’t get it more wrong if we tried…

 

We essentially think that good mental health comes about as a result of being in control of all the parameters, although we probably won’t see it quite as bluntly as this. Mental health isn’t having lots of coping strategies on hand however – it’s not about having a coping strategy for every occasion, or an answer for every problem. On the contrary, it’s about not having a need for any coping strategies, not needing a big bag full of answers. Whenever we hear any talk of ‘coping’ this means one thing and one thing only – it means propping up something that would otherwise be at threat of ‘going under’. This is like a country whose economy is going to pot and which needs a package of financial aid to keep it afloat. What we don’t ask ourselves is “What sort of ‘mental health’ is it that continually needs to be rescued, stabilized, or propped up?”

 

What we’re talking about when we use this model of mental health (even though it’s not really a ‘model’ as such because it’s not actually thought out through very thoroughly) is a nothing more than a state of dependency. By using strategies we’re creating a dependency on having to do X, Y or Z in order to feel better, in order to feel that we can ‘cope’. So perhaps I am anxious and you show me a way of deescalating the anxiety in some way – perhaps for example I am to take ten deep breathes or do ten minutes of progressive muscular relaxation. This sounds great to us, we never question this for a moment because it seems to us that we have found a way of dealing with the problem, which is exactly what we want. We now have ‘a strategy’ that we can use, we now have another effective tool to put in our ‘tool kit’, etc, etc.

 

It seems to our normal way of thinking that this is a good way of looking after our mental health. To have ways of managing our anxiety (or anger, or stress, or whatever) seems like the way to go. We’re very fond of this whole notion of ‘managing’ stuff – management’, like ‘regulation’, is a favourite word of ours. We use it all the time in the world of mental healthcare and we don’t see anything at all suspicious about it. We can’t see that the notion of ‘managing our own mental health’ is a very suspect one indeed – and yet we absolutely ought to be able to! We can’t be that lacking in psychological insight, surely?

 

The point we are making is this – if I have to engage in some kind of prescribed behaviour every time I feel anxious, or stressed, or angry, or whatever and if that behaviour affords me some sort of temporary relief from the anxiety (or whatever it is) then I have just made myself dependent upon this behaviour. With it, I get to feel OK; without it, I am definitely NOT OK! To say that I have to do X, Y or Z – whatever the strategy in question is – I order to bring the symptoms of anxiety (or whatever) under control is to affirm to me that ‘something needs to be done’ – I don’t feel OK and  so something needs to be done in order to feel OK. To feel that one needs to do something specific in order to feel OK is to have a dependency therefore and there is no way we can equate being in a state of dependency with ‘mental health’. We’ve just given away our autonomy to a mechanical coping mechanism and what’s so healthy about that?

 

I ever I have to do something in order to feel OK then this straightaway tells me that I am not OK until I do it. So the message is that ‘I’m not OK’. The message is that I’m not OK until I do what I need to do in order to feel OK. But clearly it’s not OK to be dependent upon something in order to feel OK!  So what then is this state of perceived well-being that I am striving after? It is a very obviously ‘conditional state of being’, which is to say, it is a state where I can say “I am feeling OK if….”  I am OK if conditions X, Y or Z have been met, are in place, etc. My mental health now ‘equals’ these conditions, therefore – I have now successfully externalized my mental health so that it is dependent upon external mechanical factors. If the external factors are working well then I’m well too…

 

When so-called ‘mental health’ is dependent upon conditions being met (or upon the procedures that will bring about these conditions) then this makes it into a very precarious, very brittle sort of a thing. This supposed state of mental health is not robust – it is not autonomous, it is not ‘sufficient unto itself’. It’s only OK when something outside of it, some extrinsic factor, makes it be OK. And yet if we had to say that mental health is anything, we would have to say that it means being autonomous. Without autonomy, we have nothing! We might have the superficial appearance of well-being on the outside, but for sure there’s nothing on the inside to back it up because if there was then we wouldn’t need ‘help’ from the outside. We could also talk about autonomy in terms of being self-organizing – self-organizing systems (like the psyche) don’t need to be organized from outside, if they are then this compromises their own natural process and when we disrupt or compromise the psyche’s natural self-organizing (or spontaneous) nature by relying on clumsy external mechanisms then we have fostered profound ill-health.

 

Our sense of being ‘well in ourselves’ can never be made dependent upon a special set of conditions otherwise we are going to make ourselves the slave to the need to maintain these conditions, which is exactly the road we have collectively chosen to go down – even though ‘choice’ is of course always the wrong word to use in relation to collective matters. By getting better and better at controlling our own environment (both physical and mental) we have lost our ‘resilience’, we have lost the robustness that the human race undoubtedly did used to have. Even in our own life-time, we can notice the difference – we’re less self-sufficient, we complain and go running for help for the slightest bit of discomfort, and this tendency is encouraged and fed by a political/economic system that thrives on our passivity. Who can deny this?

 

It suits the system to define mental health in the way that it does, therefore. If we are slaves to the need to the need to maintain a very specialized environment then this suits the political/economic system that prevails at this time because that political/economic system is at root the same thing as that ‘special environment’. There’s no difference. Collectively speaking, we’ve gone down the road of getting better and better at controlling the external world and this has gone hand in hand with the loss of that ‘inner life’ which has nothing at all to do with control. This ‘inner life’ is what mental health is all about, if it is about anything. What we have obtained for ourselves as a result of all this control, all this manipulation, isn’t ‘well-being’ at all – it’s a state of conditioned well-being and conditioned well-being is a different kettle of fish entirely.

 

‘Conditioned well-being’ is a phantom that we have to keep chasing. We have to keep working at it because it’s going to run away from us otherwise and leave us in the lurch. We can only have the prize if we arrange everything correctly, if we correctly ‘do the thing that we are supposed to do’. What we’re essentially doing is making our sense (or perception) of well-being dependent upon our own successful controlling, our successful ‘strategizing’, and this is a million miles from anything that we might call ‘mental health’. What we’re talking about here is actually latent anxiety and latent depression – its anxiety and depression waiting to happen.

 

What we’re essentially talking about here is conditional happiness in another guise. It is conditional happiness in a supposedly therapeutic guise! It’s no wonder we can’t spot the flaw in the logic with regard to putting all our money on coping strategies (or ‘tools’) therefore – our whole way of life is based on the unexamined belief that that happiness is conditional type of thing. Our whole approach to life, in other words, is based on the assumption that “I can / will be happy if…”

 

A lot is hanging on this ‘if’, therefore. An ‘If’ is a terrible thing to have to base one’s happiness on. Our approach to life might be based on the supposition that conditional happiness is a viable proposition but this doesn’t mean that it is! If this is our bed-rock assumption then things are simply not going to work out for us – not ever, no matter how much effort and dedication we put into it. Instead of happiness we’re going to have to make do with fantasies about happiness instead – that’s the best we will ever be able to do. In the same way, if our key assumption is that the state of good mental health can be obtained via some successful set of strategies, some system or other of management, then well-being will always be a phantom for us – a phantom that we can chase but will never catch up with.

 

Our ‘problem’ – which we can’t see to be a problem – is that we imagine that a feeling of ‘wellness’ within us can be obtained on purpose, can be brought about via some sort of purposeful action. This is our supposition, this is our assumption. But there’s a glitch here that we never seem to spot. The glitch is this – any purposeful action, across the board, is always going to come about as a result of perceived deficit. If we’re thinking in terms of taking purposeful action in relation to mental health (or some notion that we might have about mental health) then this action is always going to originate in a perception that we have regarding a lack of health, a deficit in health. If I need to do something in order to feel well in myself then clearly I am coming from a place of not feeling well. What we don’t appreciate however is that any action arising out of a perception of ‘things not being right’ with regard to how we feel in ourselves, or about ourselves, is only ever going to perpetuate that same feeling. For example, as Krishnamurti says, any action that comes out of fear (action which is the attempt to either escape fear or combat it) is fear. Any action that occurs in relation to ‘negativity’ (if we want to call it that) is that negativity. What we react to we perpetuate. ‘What we resist persists‘, as Jung says. Problem-solving isn’t the answer when we’re talking about mental health because what we call ‘mental health’ is about being not doing. Problem-solving is a decoy, as Mark Nepo says.

 

If there’s no ‘wellness’ to start off with, in other words, then no amount of manoeuvring can bring it about!  This might sound very pessimistic, very depressing, but it isn’t. The point is that wellness is always there. It never wasn’t there – we were just cut off from it. Because wellness (or Wholeness) was always there we don’t have to create it, we don’t have to bring it about by any sort of ‘skilful action’. Skilful action only confuses matters – it distances us even more from the peace of mind and the resources of strength and wisdom that are already inside us. If we are struggling to obtain something that we think we haven’t got then this only serves to reinforce the belief that we haven’t got it, that we have to do something to get it, that we have to search for it ‘on the outside’.

 

Western culture is all about searching for happiness or well-being on the outside. We don’t like to see it like this, but clearly it is true. Who can seriously argue that it isn’t the case that we always look for everything on the outside – like it or not, that’s the sort of culture we are. We have a fundamental belief that everything, including our own well-being, our own peace of mind, is to be found on the outside. We don’t trust our own spontaneous and wisdom either – we only believe what comes to us from outside of ourselves. This is what we call ‘education’ – absorbing stuff from the outside and then being examined to see if we have absorbed it correctly! And yet what an absurd belief this is – imagine thinking that our mental health, our wisdom and strength, our peace of mind, could be dependent upon things that we do, upon procedures and strategies that we have to enact correctly. Imagine thinking that our peace of mind ought to dependent upon external factors or conditions that we can supposedly control! What a terrible nightmare this would be if it were true; if it actually were true that we always had to be ‘managing our own mental health’. “Leave it alone and it will sort itself out” would be better advice. Let the muddy puddle alone and it will clear itself, as the Buddhist teachers say. ‘Let it settle itself’, says Tilopa. Don’t get stuck in the micro-managing, don’t get caught up in the nightmarish attempt to control the parameters of your own existence.

 

Our intrinsic well-being is something that can never be destroyed – it is not a conditioned reality that is dependent upon external factors. It is not something that I or society has ‘put together’ and which now has to be maintained. Anything that has been constructed needs to be maintained and once we start maintaining an illusion we are bound to keep at it forever, driven by the unconscious knowledge of what will happen if we stop maintaining, if we stop controlling. Feeling compelled to keep on maintaining and protecting an illusion, and feeling compelled at the same time to keep on validating what we’re doing, both to ourselves and everyone else, by (implicitly) saying that what we’re maintaining and protecting ISN’T an illusion isn’t mental health. It’s our Western version of ‘mental health’. It’s actually as far from mental health as it is possible to be…

 

 

 

Being Possessed By The Reactive Mind

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

INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL PRESSURE

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

OUR THOUGHTS ARE ALWAYS AGGRESSIVE

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

LIVING THE MECHANICAL LIFE

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

 

 

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

 

 

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