‘Assertion Mode’ Versus ‘Reflection Mode’

When we are painfully caught up in neurotic distress it is very helpful to see that there are two distinctly different modes of awareness, which we can call assertion and reflection. The difference is that while one mode will free us from neurotic torment, the other will make the problem worse. We can explain these two modes very easily. In the case of assertion I am saying ‘This is true’, which is being specific, committed, and closed. In the case of reflection I am not saying anything, but my attitude is asking ‘What is true?’ Reflection is unspecific and open because I am not looking for any particular answer. Each of these two modes of awareness might be said to be linked to a different sense of ‘self’: in the assertion mode it is the purposeful self, which Krishnamurti calls the ‘self-image’, and in the reflection mode it is the spontaneous self, which we can call the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self.


The spontaneous self is easy to explain (in one way at least) because it is who we really are; here there is the free expression of our true nature. We don’t have to think about what we are doing or saying – it just comes out of us. The self-image, on the other hand, is the known self, the self that we deliberately project for the benefit of ‘an audience’ (which includes ourselves). Everything the self-image does and says is ‘calculated for effect’ – even if we don’t realize that this is the case. This is the self that we are conditioned to believe in and defend, and it is at the end of the day no more than an artificial construct. A curious and very troublesome property of this ‘image of ourselves’ is that we get caught up in it and take it very seriously indeed as if the well-being (or ‘integrity’) of the self-image were the most important thing in the world


We can explain this idea by saying that it is a bit like a position (or opinion) that we start defending in a conversation even though it doesn’t matter that much to us one way of another. At first we don’t really care if we are ‘right’ or not (our involvement is ‘playful’), but after a while a process sets in which means that we start to get invested in this position; from this point onwards it all begins to get very serious and ‘out of hand’. When this happens, I get caught up in all sorts of problems and difficulties that I didn’t really need to involve myself in at all. The effort (and subsequent suffering) involved is unnecessary because I am defending an unreal thing. I am defending something that only matters because I have said that it matters and I am getting so caught up in it I am forgetting that ‘it only matters because I say it does’.


We can in fact define neurosis in general as the situation where I am defending a false sense of self. The consequences of defending this ‘false self’ (or self-image’) are that all our efforts are in vain since even if we win we lose because it is not us but the false self that benefits. What is good for the false self is not good for anyone because the false self isn’t real, and so when we promote and defend the false self we have effectively become our own enemy.


If I want to find out which mode I am in, a good question to ask myself is therefore “What self am I serving?” If I am acting for profit (i.e. in order to benefit myself in any way) then it is the self-image that is being served. This is always the case when the underlying motivation is to obtain profit, or avoid loss. The two triggers of attraction and aversion always relate to the self-image (the managed or controlled self) because it is only this self which stands to gain or lose. Essentially, anything that helps to prop up (or support) the self-image is ‘GAIN’ and anything that threatens to show it up (i.e. damage it’s integrity or standing) is ‘LOSS’. The True Self, which is who we really are, has no fear of being exposed or damaged, and no hope of being vindicated or supported. It is what it is, and it needs no ‘spin-doctoring.’  Because it isn’t a pretence it doesn’t need to be propped up.


A good way to explain this is in terms of ‘the truth versus the lie’. The thing about a lie is that it can only survive if the truth is successfully covered up. If I tell a lie then I am invested in that lie, I am committed to maintaining it – I always have to be defending it or attacking other points of view (which comes to the same thing). The lie always needs propping up because it cannot stand on its own; I have to actively promote it because without my intervention it will be exposed for what it is. The truth, however, needs no propping up – it is called ‘the truth’ precisely because it stands up on its own, without any outside help.


The point here is that I do not need to assert that such and such is true; if I feel the need to assert the truth then that means that I have lost the truth, I have become separated from the truth! It means that I am now in fact defending a lie. This is the reason why the purposeful self can never truly find peace of mind, and why anxiety is never far away. From this we can see why assertion is not the way to find freedom from anxiety since if I am asserting then this is because deep down I suspect that what I am asserting is not really true at all. It doesn’t matter how vigorously I try to prop up my positive assertion – in fact the more energy I put into it the more I feed the anxiety. Asserting the positive only emphases the negative!


If I notice myself maintaining or defending some position (whatever that position may be), then I know for sure that I am acting from the basis of the self-image, the false self. Or we could also say, when I notice myself defending a position, then this means that I don’t really believe it to be true myself!  Seeing this lack of honesty, however, is itself an honest act – which means that it is an act which the self-image is incapable of. The self-image isn’t interested in seeing the truth, it is only interested in promoting what it wants to be true, what it wants to be the case.


Seeing that I am defending (or asserting) straightaway gives the game away because as soon as I see that my position needs defending, then I know it is not true, and so I catch myself and don’t get caught up in the futile attempt to persuade myself that it is. I don’t get caught up in the defending because I immediately spot what I’m defending for what it is. So we can therefore say that seeing that I have to defend the false self weakens the false self since the truth is the one thing it cannot take. If assertion mode is where I promote and perpetuate the false self, then reflection mode is where I allow myself to see that this idea of myself is not who I really am at all.


This business of ‘seeing myself defending’ is clearly a very healthy and helpful process – when I see the falseness of what I am defending then I will no longer invest in it, I will stop putting my money on it because I know that it will not give me anything in return. This process means that I will gradually stop identifying with the false self, and this allows me to come back to being who I really am, which is the self that doesn’t have to be asserted or defined. The journey of dis-identifying with the false self – which is based on a whole load of stuff that I don’t even believe in – is the journey of psychological growth. Normally we see growth as the process in which we build up the image of who we think we are and so it can be seen from what we are saying here that genuine growth isn’t like this at all – genuine growth is where I see through who I thought I was, not where I keep on having to defend and prop up this false image of myself…


It is important to understand that what we are talking about here is ‘noticing what mode of awareness we are in’ – not ‘changing the mode that we are in’. The reason for this is simple: if I try to change myself from being in the assertion mode to being in the reflection mode, this is in itself an act of assertion and so it cannot work. All that happens is that I get confused; I get confused between where I actually am, and where I want to be. As a consequence I get tied up in knots – always trying to solve my problem with the very thing that is causing the problem. I will be trying to control myself to stop controlling myself, trying to force myself to be free. This takes us back to our definition of neurosis because the self that I am trying to free is not who I really am; it is a fiction dependent on a constant diet of spin doctoring, so how can it ever be ‘free’?


What we are saying, then, is that we cannot change modes on purpose – all we can do is see what mode we are in. I cannot assert that I am in the reflection mode, or that I intend to be in the reflection mode because that is what I want to be true. What I ‘want to be true’ is a position that I have invested in, it is a lie that I need to maintain. The only truth is ‘what is’, not what I ‘want to be’.


Actually, I don’t need to change anything on purpose because the moment I notice that I am in assertion mode I am straightaway in reflection mode!

The moment I sincerely ask myself ‘what master am I serving’ then I am asking from the standpoint of the True Self because only the True Self is interested in the truth.

The false self cannot ever sincerely ask this question because it has a fundamental resistance to hearing the answer; assertion is all about not asking open questions – the principle of the false self is ‘keep moving because if we stand still for a moment we might hear something we don’t like’. The false self is pursued by a thousand demons, yet in reality its problems all stem from itself and its determination to not hear the truth; if it stood still for a moment it would learn that it doesn’t actually exist, and this in itself is no problem.


Asking myself “What master am I serving?” is not the same thing as ‘assessing my situation’. This is another mistake that we keep making. Judging is not reflecting because when I am judging I am providing my own answers. When I evaluate whether something is good or bad what I really mean is “Is it good or bad according to my likes and dislikes?” The point is, it is me who gets to say what is good or bad – I am in control, I am holding the reins. Of course, I cannot allow myself to see how I am ‘fixing’ the process of evaluation or I wouldn’t be able to say that it is objective. Therefore, I avoid seeing how I am secretly getting my own way by assuming that my likes and dislikes are objectively valid, i.e. that my way of looking at the world is the right way.


Finally, it must be stressed that we are not saying that reflection is good and assertion is bad (which would be a judgement, and therefore an assertion). Assertion is only a problem when we are too afraid not to assert. If I can stop and reflect from time to time then assertion is not a problem, and purposefulness finds its proper place within a context of ongoing questioning. When assertion and reflection exist together, then my purposeful behaviour is not ‘blind’ – it is not driven by fear (i.e. denial). When there is a balance between the two modes my activity does not stand in the way of learning and so I do not get stuck in static (or cyclic) behaviour patterns.

When I See That I’m Asserting Then I’m Reflecting

We have said that having an awareness that there are two mode of awareness, and being able to see which mode we are in, frees us up from neurotic conflict, which is where we try to make something be true that isn’t true. The cure is not to try to make that state of affairs not be so, but simply to see that we are trying to make something be true that isn’t true. In other words, the cure is being able to see when we are in ‘assertion mode’.






Wherever there is Attachment…


Where there is attachment there is unconsciousness. Attachment means that we hope for something good to happen, and at the same time we are watching out in case something bad happens. We’re on the look-out for the favourable outcome and we’re also on the look-out for the unfavourable one, and we’re all geared up accordingly. We’re prepared either to be pleased or disappointed…


Favourable outcomes and unfavourable ones are projections, which is just another way of saying that they don’t exist. How can they exist – they’re only favourable or unfavourable in relation to me after all, they’re not ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable’ in themselves! To put this another way, when we personalize the world (i.e. when we see it in terms of ourselves, in terms of our likes and dislikes, our desires and fears) then we don’t see the world as it is in itself at all. We only see our own unreal projections superimposed on it, which we don’t see as being unreal. We don’t see the world we perceive as being ‘personalized’ – we just see it as ‘the world’.


If we’re not aware of the world as it is in itself, but only in terms of the private meaning that we are superimposing upon it, then very clearly there can be no consciousness. ‘Consciousness’ implies some sort of relationship with reality! If I’m not relating to the world but only to my own unrecognized projections then I am not conscious. I’m trapped in a loop, trapped in a blind loop of conditioned consciousness that is forever reacting to itself and this ‘blind or self-referential loop’ has replaced reality. It’s there instead of reality.


Attachment means that I am living in a world that is made up of my own hopes and fears reflected back at me; I am living in a world made up of hopes and fears, advantages and disadvantages, favourable outcomes and unfavourable ones, and this world does not exist.  How could the world be made up of ‘advantages and disadvantages’ after all? What a ridiculous way of looking at things! The advantages and disadvantages which tie up my awareness so thoroughly are purely a function of my greedy / fearful way of looking at the world. They are the result of me making the world all about me, when it isn’t. My hopes and my fears are of course all about me (who else do they belong to?) and this means that I am living my life in a claustrophobically closed little universe that is made up of nothing but myself. As Jung says,

Projections turn the world into a replica of one’s own unknown face.

When I’m looking for favourable outcomes in the world around me, when I am preoccupied with possible advantages / disadvantages, then I am abstracting something out of the world that isn’t really there. If I am thinking about any sort of outcomes at all then I am ‘skipping ahead’ – I’m ‘skipping ahead’ because those outcomes don’t actually exist in the present moment. I have an image in my mind about this outcome and the impact (either pleasant or unpleasant) it would have on me and I am focussing all my awareness on this projected image. I am focussing exclusively on this image (or idea) because it is so very important to me that I should have a pleasant experience and not an unpleasant one! It is my aversion to discomfort and my attraction to comfort that causes me to be obsessed with outcomes the whole time, therefore. This aversion / attraction, this lack of equanimity, is what causes me to be forever skipping ahead and not staying in the present moment…


If I were to stay in the present moment then advantages and disadvantages would not come into it – there are no advantages to be had in the present moment any more than there are disadvantages to be avoided! The present moment isn’t about advantages versus disadvantages. Or as we could also say, there is no ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in the now! There’s no winning or losing because winning and losing are all to do with the narrow little world of the self and the thing about being in the present moment is that this represents an expansion of consciousness beyond the claustrophobically-closed universe made up of ‘nothing but me and my projections’. The present moment is always an expansion of consciousness. Oddly enough (as it may seem) the present moment – which is of course the only reality – has nothing whatsoever to do with the self and its concerns. To be present in the moment is to be absent from the self – to be present in the moment is to be absent from the self because there is no self there in the present. It has no foothold, in influence here… It cannot spin its web there.


We might feel that all of this is a bit unfair, a bit harsh. We might feel that we’re not looking for advantages (or scanning for disadvantages) the whole time. Generally speaking, it doesn’t usually seem to be the case that we are. This however is only because we are so very used to the ‘attached’ modality of existence that we take this fundamental orientation as being ‘the only way things could be’. We don’t notice the fact that we are relating to the world almost exclusively in terms of advantage versus disadvantage; we don’t notice the way in which we are relating to our environment almost exclusively in terms of how it can either work for us or against us. Another way of putting this is to say that we’re almost always in ‘control mode’, we’re almost always hoping for things to be a certain way and are holding onto the illusion we can wangle this if we try hard enough or are lucky enough. Yet another way of putting this is to say that we’re ‘addicted to promoting the illusory self’, the ‘self that doesn’t exist in the present moment’. We addicted to promoting the interests of an unreal thing; we’re addicted to promoting the interests of ‘a fundamentally dissociated mental abstraction’…


If we want to know whether we’re stuck in control mode or not (or whether we’re looking at the world in terms of advantage versus disadvantage or not) then all we need to do is to pay attention to whether we’re thinking or not. If we’re caught up in thinking then this means that we’re caught up in control mode because the only purpose of thought is to increase the degree of control that we have (or rather, the degree of control that we imagine that we have). We think in order to gain purchase on the world, in order to get some kind of a foothold in the world. What the pie is we’re not sure, but we do know that it’s good and we want to make sure we want to get our hands on a slice of it and this is the reason we are constantly getting caught up in thinking. Thinking equals attachment, in other words. Thinking means ‘advantage versus disadvantage’. Thinking is the net we spin, the net with which we hope to catch the prize.


If we’re caught up in thinking therefore, then there is no consciousness. Consciousness comes in at the point at which we notice that we’re thinking, the point at which we notice that we’re attached to outcomes. The thinking mind is really just a survival tool, when it comes down to it. It is a survival tool that has come to be over-valued, over-used. The reason we can say that it is over-valued or over-used is because we aren’t usually in a ‘survival-type situation’ every moment of the day. It’s not about survival every minute of the day and yet we’re thinking every minute of the day, so what’s going on? The answer to this is clearly that there is something there that is surviving, or trying to survive. It’s not us however – it’s our idea of ourselves, our image of ourselves that is struggling to survive. Our idea or image of ourselves has to struggle to survive for the simple reason that it isn’t really who we are. The self-image has to keep looking for the advantages and steering clear of the disadvantages the whole time because it simply isn’t real! It has its work cut out for it….


The mental image of ourselves (which is who we believe ourselves to be) is inherently unstable simply because it is a mental image. It is a construct and constructs are by their very nature unstable. Because the construct which we call ‘the self’ (or ‘who I am’) is inherently unstable it needs to be continually propped up. Just as long as we are identified with the self-image we are driven night and day by the conditioned need to maintain it, and the prospect of not being able to maintain it strikes instant fear into our hearts. We’re afraid on behalf of the self-image. We’re not only afraid on behalf of the self-image, we’re also hopeful on its behalf. We control on its behalf, we strategize and plan on its behalf, we make goals on its behalf. When we feel pleased we are being pleased on its behalf and when we are disgruntled we are being disgruntled on its behalf. When we feel comfortable it’s on the self-image’s behalf and when we feel uncomfortable it’s on the self-image’s behalf. When we despair it’s on the self-image’s behalf.


A more subtle way of the self-image staying in control (or trying to stay in control) is by describing the world in accordance with its own language, its own model of the way it thinks things should be. We do this by constantly evaluating both ourselves and the world around us. Evaluation and control go hand in hand: inasmuch as we are perceiving the world we are evaluating it. To perceive without automatically evaluating everything we see (i.e. without thinking, without conceptually processing) is extraordinarily difficult – one would have to be an artist or a poet or a mystic, and these aren’t ways of being in the world that usually occur without being patiently cultivated over a very long period of time. Another way to put this is to say that we can only see reality ‘as it is in itself’ when we are our true authentic selves and practically none of us are our own true authentic selves. From a very early age we’ve had that knocked out of us – we’ve been coerced and cajoled and bullied into seeing things the way everyone else does, and in the process of adapting to the group mind in this way we have lost our true selves. That’s what happens in life – we lose ourselves. We get socially conditioned and to be socially conditioned is to lose sight of both ourselves and reality.


It’s not just a matter of becoming free from social conditioning, either. Even if we did get free from social conditioning we’d still be conditioned by the rational mind. It is impossible to look at the world from a particular viewpoint (which is what the rational mind is) and yet not be biased towards seeing this viewpoint as being the right one. Whatever way we have of seeing the world that is our prejudice and if we are prejudiced (as we absolutely are) then this is the same thing as existing in the state of attachment. We’re attached to the particular arbitrary way which we have of seeing the world. Or as we could also say, operating from the basis of the thinking mind means that we always have an agenda for everything and what this agenda ultimately comes down to is maintaining the status quo and the ‘status quo’ in question is our particular way of seeing things, our particular way of understanding things. Our allegiance is not to reality therefore but to our way of understanding reality – our belief structure, our model or theory of reality. If someone were to try to make this point to us we wouldn’t understand because as far as we are concerned our model or theory of reality isn’t a model or theory at all but reality itself. We don’t know the difference. If we knew that what we were relating to via the thinking /conceptualizing mind was only a representation and not the genuine article then this would be a different matter altogether – that would mean that we are no longer attached to the particular viewpoint that we are operating from. That would mean that we are no longer unconsciously committed to validating our own beliefs or theories about ‘the way things are’. We would no longer be preoccupied with maintaining our taken-for-granted POV no matter what the cost. This unattached state of consciousness is however a very rare thing to come across. This is a pretty big deal (to put it mildly) – it is the same thing as ‘not believing that you are this concrete self’, and how many of us find ourselves in this situation? ‘Had I been free I could have chosen to be not me’ says Robert Wyatt, but the point is that we just aren’t free in this way.


Instead of seeing the world as it is in itself we see it in terms of the structure (or system) that we are taking for granted. Anything irrelevant to the system in question we just don’t care about. It doesn’t exist for us – we are entirely oblivious to it.  We couldn’t be more oblivious and this is the state of unconsciousness. The unconscious state – we might say – is the state in which we are fundamentally disconnected from reality itself. We’re disconnected from reality because we not interested in it – we’re only interested in what the rational / conceptual mind has to show us and the one thing the rational / conceptual mind never shows us is reality! We’re only interested in one thing and that is playing the same old game over and over again. The game that we’re playing is very easy to understand – as we have already said, we’re identified with a particular standpoint, a particular set of assumptions, and the ‘game’ we’re playing is the game of pretending that the world which this viewpoint (this set of assumptions) shows us is actual reality. The rational mind equals a particular POV, a particular set of assumptions and the game we’re playing is the game of validating this POV, validating these assumptions. This is attachment in a nutshell – we’re attached to proving that our theory is right, that our assumptions are right, for no other reason than the fact that it is our theory, that they are our assumptions…


The game makes perfect sense from the point of view which it takes for granted – the POV which is itself. This is of course a fairly redundant thing to say – of course the game makes sense from the POV which it itself takes for granted! This is like saying that a structure always agrees with itself, or that a literal statement always agrees with itself. That’s what makes a structure into a structure, a literal statement into a literal statement. From outside of this closed viewpoint however the game doesn’t make any sense at all! It doesn’t make any sense at all because the mechanical structure or system we’re identified with isn’t who we are, and because it isn’t who we are we are under no obligation to validate it or fulfil its needs. We are only obliged to validate it and fulfil the system’s needs when we play the game of thinking that it is ‘who we are’. And not only is this set-up, this system ‘not who we are’, it doesn’t really exist in the first place. It only seems to exist when we take it seriously, when we steadfast ignore everything that doesn’t confirm its reality. It only seems real when we ignore the real world, in other words, and only take notice of the world as it appears to be from our particular arbitrary viewpoint.


The mechanical structure or system that we are identifying with only seems to exist when we are playing the game that it exists. It only exists, in other words, when we keep on furthering its aims, when we keep on obeying the rules that it sets out for us. The more we play the game the realer it gets to seem for us and we play the game a lot! We play the game all the time. We actually can’t help playing this game – we’re terrified not to play it. We play it and we play it and we play it – all in the hope that everything will somehow turn out OK for us if we play it right, if we obey the rules correctly…


What we are essentially hoping here (although we can’t see it) is that going along with our attachments is somehow going to help us get the best out of life. But attachments are really just red herrings – they’re only really there for the sake of keeping us busy, for the sake of keeping us preoccupied. Acting on attachments keeps us caught up in the net of thought, and being caught up in the ‘net of thought’ means that we never actually get to rest in the present moment. The attachments are only there as a distraction from reality in other words; far from helping us, or in any way ‘sorting things out’, acting on attachment is only ever keeping us unconscious. Being unconscious (or ‘being driven by our attachments’) means that we are ignoring what is real and chasing after what is unreal, and this is really just a mechanism for creating suffering…






The System of Belief


There is a hope that we all carry around with us, a hope that we never quite give up on, and that is the hope that – one day – we will actually ‘get things to work out the way we want them to’. Admittedly, this doesn’t seem to want to happen for us, but nevertheless we remain convinced that it will happen one day! Or that could happen. And even if I have grown cynical, and have now believe that ‘things will never work out’, I hold on all the more to the belief that the universe ought to play ball with me, that it is sheer perversity that it doesn’t. As a result of this, I get stuck in ‘angry mode’ or ‘frustrated mode’ or ‘complaining mode’, or ‘feeling sorry for myself mode,’ or some other variation on this theme.



What is basically happening in all these cases is that I am taking it completely for granted that the universe ought to conform to my beliefs about it. In other words, I have certain unexamined (or unconscious) assumptions about ‘the way things should be’ and every time life fails to happen the way I think it should happen (every time it refuses to play ball with me) then I go into some well-rehearsed variant of ‘non-acceptance’. Now it is a well-known fact that the universe doesn’t really care if I accept it or not – it just carries on as usual, regardless of my hurt feelings. As a result I end up spending an awful lot of my time getting upset and unhappy on behalf of these ill thought-out beliefs and assumptions. More often than not, I have a terrible time because of them.



I tend to see the fault for all this in the wrong place. Either I see the fault in other people or in life in general for letting me down (for being so rude as to not fit in with my expectations), or I see the fault in myself, for not being able win out over difficult circumstances. In the first case I project the blame outwards and I get angry because life doesn’t play ball with me, and in the second case I project the blame inwards and despise myself for being a loser because I am not able to force life to play ball with me. Either way it all comes down to blame – either I blame the world or I blame myself.



Both of these two reactions are equally absurd. The idea that the universe ought to fit in with my expectations of it is completely without foundation, and the idea that it ought to be possible for me to force the universe to do what I want it to do is also completely without foundation. Both of these two assumptions are laughably absurd, and yet I end up giving myself (and maybe other people as well) pure hell on their behalf. What is needed to cure this ridiculous situation is insight into the impossible nature of what I am trying so hard to achieve. Insight into reality is the infallible cure – in the absence of insight I will keep on struggling forever, oblivious to the absurdity of my efforts.




Another possibility that we have not so far looked at is the possibility that I will simply worry about things not going the way I think they ought to. I may sometimes get angry or frustrated, and I may develop low self-esteem, but primarily I am caught up in the particular type of mental agony that we know as anxiety. Anxiety is no different from any other variant of ‘blind non-acceptance’ – it is every bit as useless and every bit as absurd, and we spend an awful lot of time caught up in it, just as with all the other types of non-acceptance.



What is happening in anxiety is that I have certain unexamined beliefs concerning what I think is a ‘good’ outcome and what I think is a ‘bad’ outcome, and I end up going through hell on behalf of these beliefs. However, if you actually tell me that my beliefs are not worth feeling bad over then I tend to get rather insulted. Either that or I start to think that you are simply talking nonsense. This reaction of ‘feeling insulted’ or of being ‘automatically dismissive’ deserves our attention because it shows us something that we don’t usually realize – it shows us that we are for some reason identified with our beliefs, our assumptions. If I am identified with my beliefs then this simply means that they are important to me for some reason that I do not allow myself to know about – it means that I will protect them no matter what, for ‘no good reason’. I will go through torment on their behalf, and I certainly won’t want to question them and ask myself just how valid they really are, in any objective sense.




This uncritical attachment to our beliefs is no small matter – on the contrary, it lies right at the root of all our sorrows, and so it is seriously worth focussing on. The question is – What do we get out of our beliefs? Why are they so important to us? There are a number of ways in which we could try to answer this question. One way is to say that our beliefs are what hold our world together, and we instinctively know that if we start questioning our beliefs, then the whole thing is likely to unravel. We automatically assume (without ever thinking it through) that this would be an awful catastrophe – a disaster of the worst possible kind.



Normally, we naively think that we believe things because they are true, but if we stopped to consider the matter then we would of course start to smell a rat. After all – the whole thing about having a belief is that I want for it to be true and if I want so badly for it to be true, then how can I be sure that there is not some sort of self-deception going on? How can I trust myself, given the fact that – when it comes right down to it – I am not exactly an impartial judge in this matter?




Actually, the only way that I can ever be able to see the truth is when I do not come to the scene ‘already prejudiced’. I can only see the truth when I don’t care what that truth is – when I am impartial. The ‘believing’ frame of mind however is partial; it is partial because I secretly want to believe whatever it is that I do believe. The whole business of ‘believing stuff’ relies entirely on the fact that I am not willing to question myself – if I have a belief then this automatically means that I am not open to the possibility that the belief may not be true. In other words, a belief is a closed frame of mind. Needless to say, when I am possessed by some sort of belief or conviction about something I don’t go around thinking to myself “I have a closed mind.” If I acknowledged that I am only able to be convinced about something because I am in a closed frame of mind, then this would immediately throw a very large amount of doubt on the value or trustworthiness of the particular belief or conviction.




A belief only gets to have credibility because of the fact that we assume that we do not in fact have a closed mind. This is like a judge who comes to a trial having already made up his mind that the defendant is as guilty as hell, but who pretends both to himself and everyone else that he is willing to be open-minded about things. To be a judge, he has to appear to others to be fair-minded and impartial even if he has already made up his mind. He also has to appear fair-minded to himself – otherwise he is not going to feel very good about himself. In exactly the same way when I have a belief I have to entertain the comforting illusion that the belief is not just some arbitrary or prejudicial conviction, but a fair and even-minded assessment of the truth. I have to do this in order to benefit from the nice cozy reassuring and secure feeling that the belief gives me.



In conclusion, we can say that the reason that my beliefs and assumptions are so important to me that I would rather go through hell than examine or question them, is because they provide me with a very special sort of security that I seriously do not want to give up. This is the crucial point – the fixed pattern of my thinking is important to me in an unacknowledged way. It is important to me not because it is objectively useful, or objectively correct, but because it fulfils my unacknowledged need for psychological security.




We can also explain the feeling of security that I get in terms of personal validation – I get to feel good about myself, I get to be convinced that I am right, that I don’t have to question myself. This business goes a lot deeper than it might sound because the ‘freedom not to question myself’ really comes down to the ‘freedom to believe whatever the hell I want to believe’, and this in turn comes down to the ‘freedom to escape reality’.



Why would we want to escape reality? One answer is to say that the universal reason for wanting to escape reality is FEAR, which therefore means that our very serious desire for the security of our beliefs is the same thing as our very serious desire to escape our fear – whatever that fear might be about. The desire to hold on is the same thing as the ‘fear of letting go’, and what we hold on to is our belief system. Basically, our beliefs are our comfort blankets – they are what we rely on to make us feel safe.



This means that our system of belief and the purposeful activity that arises out of it, both have their root in fear. Beliefs are ‘the known’, and purposeful activity (which includes rational or directed thought) is the validation of the known. Our ‘purposes’ – which is to say our goals – become all-important to us and this has the automatic effect of reinforcing the invisible assumptions that they are based upon. This means that our goals aren’t important to us for the sake that we say they are important, but rather they are important because they reinforce our underlying system of belief. To put this another way, our goals are important to us because they give us a sense of meaning about what we are doing, and when we are ‘busy’ we feel automatically validated – we don’t have to question ourselves. This is ‘the comfort zone of goal-orientated behaviour’.



The validation of the known means that we are able to convince ourselves that ‘what we take to be true’ is the same thing as ‘the truth as it is in itself’, but this is never the case. The truth as it is in itself is always bigger and more expansive than myself, whereas the truth as I see it is the same size as myself – in fact it is the exact same thing as ‘myself’. The ‘known’ is no more than a projection of my own unexamined or unquestioned prejudices, and this bundle of accidentally acquired and unquestioned prejudices is what I call ‘me’.




This sounds like a strange thing to say, but when we reflect on the matter we can see that inasmuch as my thoughts and my beliefs and my conditioned perceptions represent ‘the known’, and inasmuch as I know myself through my thoughts and beliefs and conditioned perceptions, then it is splitting hairs to say that there is any difference between ‘the truth as I see it’ and the self which sees this truth. The self which sees the truth in the way that it unconsciously wants to see the truth is the self which sees its own beliefs as being true, and this self is necessarily part of its own belief system.



The conditioned truth and the conditioned self which sees this conditioned truth as being genuinely (i.e. unconditionally) true are one and the same thing. It couldn’t really be otherwise since the conditioned truth of ‘who I am’ has to be compatible the conditioned world which that conditioned self exists in. It is all ‘cut from the same cloth’ and there is no discontinuity anywhere within that cloth – there is no discontinuity between my ideas and the self that has the ideas.




All this is simply another way of saying that my underlying belief-system produces my idea of ‘who I am’. This means that my idea of who I am and my belief system are one and the same thing. I am my beliefs, or – rather, my beliefs are me. The whole thing is all one seamless unit, and that seamless unit is both the creation of my thinking, and the thinking itself. Furthermore, the whole kit and caboodle is only real (or valid) with respect to itself, which means that – ultimately – it is not real at all. After all, if a belief is merely an arbitrary description of reality that I have decided to go along with because it (secretly) suits me to go along with it, then where is the ‘reality’ in this?



Beliefs are like labels: I can easily label you as a criminal and then proceed to act as if my label actually means something (as if it reflects reality and not my hidden bias) but the very ease with which I can slap a label you on means the label tells me nothing. Beliefs, opinions and labels in general are ten a penny – I can easily come up with one to suit my own unacknowledged needs, and this means that they contain no genuine information at all – they are my own mental projections, and that is all. In other words –


If I can see things any way I want, then what I end up seeing (or believing) as a result of this wanting means nothing at all.




If anything can be true (when it suits me for it to be true), then the word ‘true’ loses its meaning. Yet despite the fact that our beliefs about the world and ourselves are ‘facile’ (i.e. to easily obtained to mean anything), the fact remains that it matters very much that they should appear meaningful and valid. This is the reason that we are all so touchy and defensive about our core beliefs, particularly those beliefs that have a direct bearing on the most central and all-important belief of all, which is the belief-structure that Krishnamurti calls ‘the self-image’. The reason an insult (any insult) stings us so deeply is because it touches upon our innermost insecurity – the insecurity we have about ourselves. There are many buried questions such as “Who am I really?”, “Am I all that I say I am?”, “What does my life actually amount to?” And so on.



The way we cover up or compensate for this insecurity is by the self-image, which has the overt function of providing definite positive picture of my identity. Of course, as we have said earlier, any definite positive statement always involves a tacit recognition of the contrary state of affairs, which is to say, when I say loudly that I am a worthy person, this message contains the implication that I am in fact completely worthless. I try to send out the message that “I am a winner” but – inadvertently – I send out the message of my hidden insecurity, my unacknowledged suspicion that I am a ‘loser’.




As Professor Carse has said, the motivation which we have to be successful in life is a direct measure of how little we already believe this to be true. If I am putting myself out to ‘be someone’ then this is because I secretly know that actually I am not what I want to prove myself to be. I suspect myself to be ‘nobody’. If I did not secretly suspect myself to be a loser, then I wouldn’t be trying so hard to be a winner.


In relation to beliefs, we can reformulate the above to say that if I cling to a positive belief about myself (in order to offset my feeling of insecurity), then what I am inadvertently doing is sending a negative message to myself. I am casting doubt upon myself by the very act of proclaiming myself. It is for this reason that the self-image is as often negative as it is positive – actually positive and negative are inextricable, and if we buy into the former we make ourselves the legitimate prey of the latter. This being the case, it is no wonder that the self-image is as vulnerable to insults as it is. The self-image is always vulnerable to insults, just as a belief is always vulnerable to the equal and opposite ‘counter-belief’.


The belief system (and the self-image) can therefore be seen as an attempt to cure a problem – the only thing is, it actually creates the problem that it sets out to cure. As we have suggested, the function of my system belief is purely to provide security. The perceived problem has to do with my feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, and the solution that I come up with is the definite viewpoint of my belief structure, which automatically provides me with the possibility of controlling in accordance with ‘how I think things should be’. The definite view of the world is how I fight against the feeling of uncertainty, and the feeling of being in control is how I fight against the feeling of being vulnerable. My fixed understanding of the world along with my attempt to control what is happening on the basis of this fixed understanding are the two prongs of my defence system.




Once I start down the road of ‘fighting against existential insecurity’ I am committed to the struggle, and this means being to committed to maintaining and defending my system of belief (and my self-image) no matter what. It doesn’t matter if the thing I am defending is actually worth defending or not – that is not the issue. In any case, I cannot ever allow myself to question that because ‘not questioning’ is where I get my sense of existential security from. I can’t question whether what I am defending is worth defending and so I am locked into defending it right to the bitter end…


The tragic aspect of this struggle is twofold –


[1] It is a struggle which I can never ever win.


[2] I can never allow myself to question what I am actually doing (which means that I cannot allow myself to see that my struggle is doomed to failure right from the start).


The combination of these two aspects is what creates the basic human situation of suffering and frustration. Aspect 1 is not something that we can do anything about – ultimately, we can never succeed in the struggle to defend our belief system because it is our attempt to defend it that creates the very problem that it is trying to defend against. We can succeed temporarily, but only at the price of an inevitable future setback. Winning creates losing – losing is the other side of the coin to winning, and once we set the coin spinning we get caught into the endless cycle of ‘up and down’.




We have said that the system of belief is an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist until we start attempting to solve it. We can also look at this in terms of ‘identification’ (or ‘attachment’) – when I get caught up in a system of belief (i.e. a fixed or unquestionable way of looking at things) then I automatically identify with what that system of belief says I am. I identify with the conditioned self, in other words. From this point on it is inevitable that I will be 100% committed to promoting and defending this sense of ‘me’ – I will be fighting the corner of the conditioned self.


This really means that I am fighting on behalf of the belief system, since it is the belief system which has creating the conditioned self. The belief system is the conditioning which informs (or determines) the conditioned self and when we fight on behalf of this ‘false’ self we are really –without knowing it – fighting on belief of some arbitrary belief system which we have accidentally acquired along the way.




There is no limit to the sort of things we are prepared to do on behalf of our beliefs. We will hurt others, hurt ourselves, commit murders, torture people, start wars, all for the sake of some meaningless belief. As psychotherapist Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, what we are really doing all this for is so that we don’t have to extend ourselves, and by this he means question our beliefs.



Rather than question what we fundamentally believe in we would do the most terrible things – although we will of course rationalize what we are doing, so it seems justified to us. It goes without saying that we are all very good at justifying ourselves! If I am a religious ‘fundamentalist’, then I might be prepared to kill others or sacrifice myself for the sake of my belief, but really I am only doing what I am doing for the sake of not questioning my belief. I am driven by the need not to question my beliefs and this is fear, but I have turned it all around in my head so I get to feel like a hero. Basically, as Scott Peck says, this comes down to the motivation of laziness. My true motivation might be laziness, but I will not of course admit this to myself because facing up to my own laziness involves a tremendous amount of work, and work is the one thing I do not want to do. For this reason, I ‘dress up’ my actions so that they appear presentable, respectable, altruistic, honourable, and so on. Basically, I behave appallingly, but ascribe to myself the pure and selfless motivation of a saint or hero, and this is the wretched state of affairs which is sometimes known as ‘psychological unconsciousness’.



The idea that most of what we do, most of what we feel strongly about, is only (really) as important as it is to us because we cannot bear to challenge ourselves – because we are too afraid of change – is very hard to take seriously. If we did take it seriously then we would have to change and this is reason enough for us to consistently refuse to see our own true motivation. Becoming conscious (or becoming aware) is painful, and it is because of our automatic refusal to feel pain that we stay in the unhappy and ignominious state of unconsciousness.




We said right back at the beginning of this discussion that the one hope that we never give up on is the hope that one day things will work out the way we want to. Of course, often enough we slide into despair – we despair that things will ever work out for us. But despair still contains as a key ingredient the stubborn belief that things ought to work out for us, that life ought to follow our plans for it. If this stubborn belief were to finally evaporate, then there would be no more despair because despair is all about ‘me’ and ‘my plans’. ‘Me’ and ‘my plans’ are the very same thing (as we have already said) and it is the stubborn yet futile obsession that creates so much trouble for us.



It has been said that our situation is like a man who is forever rowing a boat, forever trying to reach a place where he doesn’t have to row any more. Such a place doesn’t exist, but the man keeps hoping, and keeps deluding himself that he will soon find that place where no more effort, no more work, is needed. Because of the futile nature of his struggle, the man is subject to an endlessly alternating repetition of hope followed by despair, hope followed by despair, hope followed by despair…



Another way of putting this is to say that we keep on striving time after time to find a place where there is no more insecurity, not realizing that such a place does not exist, and never could exist. The reason this place could not ever exist is simple – what we mean by ‘security’ is a place where the construct which is our ‘system of belief’ can rest contentedly in itself without having to fight to prove itself, defend itself, and validate itself. This for us is the ‘ultimate goal’ – it represents for us the ‘ultimate solution’ to all of our problems. The desire to reach this place is therefore the desire that we all have to ‘bring all of our troubles to an end’.



We are yearning for closure, yearning for an end to the discomfort, yearning for a final resting place, and we will do anything in the service of this goal. We are always finding ourselves in the situation where it appears that only one last, tremendous effort is needed to bring this about, and so we give it everything we’ve got, only to find ourselves right back at square one again. “This time it’ll be different,” I think, but it never is.



But what’s wrong with wanting all our troubles to be over? This seems reasonable enough, surely? The crux of the problem is that we want peace and happiness, but we want it on the terms of our belief system! We want our belief system to be intact and unchallenged, and for us to be at peace at the same time. The reason this can’t happen is of course because the system of belief is always at odds with reality – it isn’t actually true after all, and so can I find final happiness if I insist on hanging on to all my contradictory and divisive prejudices?



Basically, the goal of getting everything to work out the way I think it should is an impossible goal because ‘the way I think things should be’ is a foolish illusion. And even if things could be the way we want them to be all that we would happen is that we would find ourselves delivered into a nightmare. Every time our wishes come true it is a disaster because we aren’t wise enough to make good wishes – we leave out the most important thing, we miscalculate, we have an erroneous picture of life, we don’t think things out properly in our greedy hurry to make the wish. The wisest wish would be for things to work out the way they are supposed to work out, not the way I want them to work out, on the basis of my absurd and foolish preconceptions. When we think about the metaphor of the man rowing the boat, who always thinks that he is in with a chance of never having to row again, and who is always hankering after this goal, we tend to think “Yes, but how is your man any better off when he realizes that he just has to keep rowing forever? How does that help?”



Well, on the one hand it is obvious that at least he is spared the anxiety and stress of worrying about whether he will be able to ‘win’ in the game that he is playing. All anxiety has to do with the need to win (which is the same thing as the need not to lose), and so anxiety is no longer a feature. In addition, our man’s situation is such that he always has to be in denial of the truth – he has to insist on believing that his goals are meaningful, that his game-plan is meaningful. What this means is that he has to repress all the feelings of meaningless and futility that he is getting (that he is bound to get) and repressed feelings of meaningless and futility inevitably turn into depression. Thus, believing that the game is real creates anxiety and depression. We’re ‘investing in the unreal’ and the unreal isn’t a good investment!



“Even so,” (we might think) “isn’t it awful hard to have to keep on rowing the whole time?” But here too our assumption turns out to be wrong. Rowing seems like an unbearable chore to me when my heart is set on finding a way out, finding a way not to row. When this is the case (which it usually is) then my heart is not in the job, so I am ‘working but wishing I was not working’. I am working, but at the same time always scheming for a way out of working. I am ‘working’ in order that I might find a way not to work, and this is not work at all. All I am doing is waiting, like a man in the waiting room in the GP’s surgery is waiting. Somehow I have the idea that “this isn’t life, this is just a painful and thoroughly undesirable interlude that I have to put up with until the good bit that I’ve been looking forward to comes along later”. But actually I am 100% wrong, because it is life and if I just try to ‘wait it out’ then I am turning my back on life. I am hiding in a hole. And if I think that I will suddenly be able to come into life when the easy bit comes along, then I am sadly mistaken because I’ll still be in my miserable hole. I’ll still be stuck in my narrow beliefs about the world, in other words, and so I will still be incapable of being truly happy.



The advantage of rowing (which is to say, ‘being in a difficult place’) is that by looking at our beliefs in this way we become free from those beliefs. In order to look at our beliefs we have to become bigger than they are and this is what frees us from them. When we want to avoid difficulty that really means that we want to avoid giving up our beliefs – the over-all belief being “I should never be challenged” or “I should never have a hard time”. But how is this helping us? This rejection of difficulty puts us in the position of the man rowing the boat, hoping to reach the place where he doesn’t have to row anymore. The tragedy is that he never learns the ‘secret’, which is that when we give ourselves wholly to the rowing we discover that the rowing isn’t actually a problem.  The rowing’ is life, and life isn’t a problem. It’s only a problem when we decide that it is and refuse to use it as an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to learn that we are actually bigger than our limiting beliefs about ourselves and the world….