Outgrowing Neurosis

Albert Einstein famously said that you can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created that problem, and we can expand upon this statement of Einstein’s to say that we can’t fix a ‘psychological problem’ with any sort of thinking at all!

 

This is really a matter of perspective (or in the case of ‘thinking about a problem’, the lack of it). We never gain perspective by trying to solve a problem. We might solve it perhaps, if it happens to be a soluble problem, but we will never gain perspective in this way. ‘Solving a problem’ doesn’t mean gaining perspective, after all – we’re taking the problem seriously when we try to fix it and we are still taking it seriously if or when we do fix it! And if it happens that we don’t or can’t fix it, then we are in this case also taking the fact that we can’t fix the problem seriously. We never stop ‘taking the problem seriously;’ or in other words, we never cease to relate to the problem on its own terms.

 

We are talking about ‘psychological problems’ here (if we may use that phrase) and so the point we were originally making is that no psychological problem is ever ‘fixed’. This goes counter to all of our assumptions of course but we can explain the point that we are making here very easily. What we are calling ‘psychological problems’ aren’t problems at all really, they just seem to be and the problem isn’t so much ‘the problem itself’ as the fact that we have been tricked into taking seriously what we never should have taken seriously. Once we have been tricked into taking the ‘apparent problem’ seriously then this is when our problems really begin. There is no end to our problems then…

 

The other way of putting this is to say that our problem – which is the only problem we can have when it’s mental health that we’re talking about – is a deficiency in perspective. It is this deficiency in perspective that causes us to see a problem where there is none, and it is also what causes us to get stuck in painful, self-sabotaging patterns of thinking and behaving. The ‘problem’ is the way in which we keep on trying to fix a problem that isn’t really a problem, but which we keep seeing as a problem because we are lacking in perspective. It is because we keep on trying to fix our situation that we stay stuck in the hole that we have unwittingly excavated for ourselves. This then is the essential mechanism behind all neurotic suffering – it’s always the same story every time, no matter what type of neurosis it is we might be dealing with.

 

This is what creates the trap of neurosis – the way in which we use the same thinking that caused the problem to try to fix the problem. This empties out every last bit of perspective that we’ve got in our fuel tank, so that our chance of escaping becomes effectively zero. ‘Fixing’ doesn’t just mean ‘trying to correct or rectify matters in a logical way’, it means any kind of ‘reacting’ at all. ‘Reacting’ essentially means that we are either trying to flee or fight, we’re either trying to run away from the problem or we’re trying to squash it, trying to get rid of it. This is the most ‘basic’ interaction there is, in other words, and it is ‘fully automated’, requiring no sensitivity towards the situation on our part, requiring no actual ‘input’ or intelligence from us. The reacting happens all by itself in a mechanical way. All neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving are fuelled by ‘reacting’ therefore, and the reason we keep on reacting in the way that we do is because we have absolutely no perspective on what is going on!

 

We never gain perspective by trying to fix the problem as we’ve said, and we never gain perspective by reacting to it either! We can go further than this and say that in the psychological sphere problems are created by our attempts to correct them. Obviously this isn’t the case in the physical world: if my car is broken and I take it to the garage to get fixed, clearly I am not creating the problem in my car by taking it to the mechanic! If I cut my finger and have to put a bandage on it then the act of putting a plaster on the cut is clearly not what causes the cut to be there. But in the psychological realm things are different; as we have said, there are no such things as ‘problems’ in the psychological sphere – if we think that there are then we are creating them with our thinking’, it is as simple as that.

 

We could equivalently say that the only real problem in mental health is the old, old problem of ‘deficiency in perspective’ but even to say this is misleading since there is no way that we can ‘fix’ a deficiency in perspective. There’s nothing we can deliberately do to bring perspective back into our lives – all purposeful or goal-orientated action can ever do is reduce perspective still further, as we keep saying. Lack of perspective can’t be seen as ‘a problem’ therefore because to use this term necessarily implies the existence of some sort of ‘solution’! Perspective is a very peculiar kind of thing therefore; at least it’s peculiar from our normal way of seeing things. Perspective is already there – it’s our starting-off point and so anything we deliberately do in order to achieve some end always has the effect of reducing perspective. This is because purposeful action requires us to narrow down our focus so that instead of having lots of ‘parallel’ ways of seeing the world we have ‘just the one’ and only having the one way of looking at the world is what having no perspective is all about.

 

If we are to understand what mental health really means we need to see this clearly therefore; we need to see this since ‘mental health’ and ‘perspective’ cannot ever be separated. If we can’t see that the ‘problem’ of not having enough perspective on life is not something we can tackle with rationality then we aren’t ever going to get anywhere – we’re just going to keep spinning around in circles, we’re just going to keep digging the hole deeper for ourselves. When we do (as we do) try to work with neurotic distress in terms of our normal, everyday thinking we are only exacerbating matters in other words, and so often in therapy this is exactly what we end up doing. In this case – when we try to resolve or ameliorate neurotic distress on the basis of ‘the rational approach’ – our therapeutic approach to intervention becomes no more than a logical extension of the original neurotic glitch!

 

The ‘glitch’ in question, as we have said, is where we ‘create a problem by trying to solve it’. Our automatic reacting (or fixing) is ‘the problem’, therefore. If we then introduce some kind of therapeutic rationale into the picture which has the aim of stopping us automatically reacting (or stopping us trying to fix the problem that is created by the fixing) then this too becomes a type of fixing. Trying to stop fixing is itself fixing, just as trying to stop thinking is itself thinking. This being so – which it clearly is – then any type of approach that we take which is orientated towards the purposeful/rational tackling of our neurosis is – by definition – an extension of that very same neurosis. All that we’re saying here therefore is that ‘we can’t cure aggression with yet more aggression’, which is something that we all know on some level or another. That is – we might say – ‘the basic lesson in life’. Most of mankind’s suffering is caused by us trying to cure aggression (and the fallout from aggression) with the addition of yet more aggression. This is true on the individual / personal scale just as it is true on the global scale, and so it should come as no surprise that we also try to treat neurosis with ‘rational-purposeful therapy’, which is a fine example of irony for those that can see it.

 

Jung states that psychological problems cannot ever be solved on their own terms, but can only ever be ‘outgrown’. When we outgrow a problem, Jung says, it’s still there but it doesn’t bother us in the way that it used to. It’s as if we’re viewing a storm in the valley from the mountain-top. We can still see the storm from our vantage point, but because of the extra perspective we now have the storm can actually be seen in a peaceful way. Perspective brings peace, in other words – we no longer have to see things on their own terms, and this means that we are no longer compelled to react or interact with them on their own terms. ‘Reacting’ (or ‘interacting with problem on its own terms’) IS the storm! There’s nothing purposeful or goal-orientated about ‘growth’ however – we can’t ‘grow as a strategy’! We can’t make personal growth into a goal. If personal growth was a strategy then this would mean that we are trying to ‘avoid some sort of an unwanted outcome’ and no one ever grows as a result of trying to avoid an unwanted outcome! That’s the wrong motivation entirely! If personal growth was ‘a goal’ then we would have to know where this growth was taking us,but by definition we don’t know this and never can.

 

Growth is a lot simpler than we would think. No strategies, no skills, no gimmicks are needed – the only prerequisite for psychological growth is that we stay with the difficulty, whenever that difficulty might be. A natural inclination is of course to look for a quick fix and when we go down this road we might develop skills at strategising, but we do not grow. This is a ‘trade-off’: we’re getting better at being tricky (i.e. we’re getting better at controlling or scheming or manipulating) instead of growing, and this simply means that we are engaged in digging a very deep hole for ourselves. It does of course go totally against common sense to ‘relate to the difficulty in an uncomplicated way’, and appreciate just exactly what that difficulty feels like for us. This is a very simple thing to do however – the difficult situation is real, it’s actually happening, and so we just have to take that on board; we just have to acknowledge that this is our situation and this acknowledgement is itself growth. Being ‘willing to see the truth’ is growth.

 

This idea can be all too easily taken up the wrong way however because we are very much inclined to turn this insight into a strategy which is completely unproductive, to say the least. This isn’t something we can do (or not do) on purpose – it’s more of an attitude than anything else and we can’t engineer our own attitude, no matter what the positive thinking movement might tell us. When we realise that it’s not about what we do (i.e. running away from the pain on the one hand or trying to stick with it on the other) but rather that all that is needed is for us to live our lives consciously, in whatever way our lives happen to be unfolding. If we take the attitude that all the responsibility lies with us, and that we have to enact some strategy correctly if we are to get out of the hole we’re in (whether that strategy is to fix the pain or force ourselves to stay with it) then this is what the alchemists called the via erratum (or ‘the way of error’). If I have what Julian Rotter called an ‘internal locus of control’ then I firmly believe that I am in control of my own mental state but this belief just isn’t going to work out in practice. How can perspective be ‘all down to me’ – how can I control the amount of perspective I have when ‘controlling’ always reduces perspective? I could of course always try to control my controlling so that I’m not controlling so much but this isn’t really going to help very much! If I think that this is going to work then that shows for sure that I don’t have any perspective…

 

 

In our culture we find it astonishingly hard to understand that we can’t change or modify a painful state of mind by thinking about it. We just won’t have this – we’re very bull-headed about it. The point that I just can’t grasp is that the painful state of mind is my actual reality and I can’t conveniently run away from it. I am that state of mind so how can I possibly change it? How can a state of mind change itself by acting upon itself? What foolish thinking is this? We are of course assuming that we have access to some objectively true and independent viewpoint from which to act but we don’t – we only have ourselves from which to act (or to put this another way, we only have our necessarily biased ‘subjective illusion of ourselves’ from which to act, and we’re never going to get anywhere on this flawed basis)…

 

Trying to change our state of mind by thinking about it is the most futile thing in the whole wide world and we as a culture are utterly unable to see this. There couldn’t be a more futile thing than this, there just couldn’t be. As Jesus asks (in Matthew 6:27) – ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his height?’ Two thousand years later, we are still no closer to understanding this simple psychological fact! We don’t want to understand it because it makes us feel too powerless. This isn’t a hopeless message we’re talking about here however – it might look hopeless but it isn’t. The moment we stop going down the wrong road we are already on the right one, so to speak. To see that something is futile is to be free from it. The moment we see the via erratum for what it is we are already on the via veritas, the road of truth… To be on the road of truth, all we need to do is see the truth – no striving is necessary. We can’t force ourselves to be honest, after all…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Off The Conveyor Belt

How do we start to be mindful, how do we get started being mindful for the first time when the practice of mindfulness (whatever that might be) is not something with which we are culturally familiar? Even the intellectual understanding of what is called ‘mindfulness’ is rather elusive; never mind actually putting it into practice. The great difficulty is that we keep thinking of it as a task, as something to ‘do’. We always think of everything as a task, and this is because we are always operating out of our thinking mind; we’re always seeing everything as a problem, in other words! As soon as we start thinking in this way then we automatically tense up in preparation for the act of ‘achieving some outcome or other’. We might not know what the outcome or result is supposed to be, because we are not familiar with it, but we tense up anyway in expectation of having to do something.We can’t help thinking that we have to ‘do something’, and this puts us under pressure…

 

This ‘tensing up’ is a habitual sort of thing – we are always doing it, it is the main thing we have to do in life, or so it tends to seem. We have to tense up in preparation for doing something, in preparation for ‘making something happen’… Life appears to be a series of problems or challenges, one after another after another, sometimes with hardly any break between, or even perhaps no break between them. If this is so (if life is a never-ending series of problems with scarcely any break between them) then what this means is that life itself is interpreted as a problem – and this is not an unusual situation. In everyday language this situation – where life itself becomes the problem – is known as generalized anxiety.Because we see life as ‘a problem to be fixed’, we become vulnerable to deep-seated doubts about our ability to do whatever it is that we are supposed to do (even though we don’t really know what this is).

 

The more we identify with the thinking mind the more we see everything as a problem because this is the only way the thinking mind can relate to things! It’s a ‘problem-solving machine’ and so that’s what it does. The rational mind is a machine for fixing problems and if we identify with it then that’ll turn us into a machine too!  We will become more and more mechanical, more and more rigid in our thinking, more and more ‘brittle’ with regard to surprising or unwanted outcomes. More and more of us are suffering from anxiety disorders in recent times for the simple reason that our technologically-orientated culture compels us to ‘identify with the thinking mind’. Our rational-technological culture forces us into a position of automatic congruence with the mind-created image of ‘who we are’ and this ‘confusion of identity’ can only ever lead to anxiety, in the long run…

 

Saying that we tend to relate to life itself as a ‘task’, as something we have to ‘do’, is the same as saying that we habitually tense up (mentally, and sometimes also physically) when we are confronted with any challenge at all. We tense up because we have to change something from the way it is into some other way. We have to take personal responsibility for doing this. If I do have some sort of physical task, such as lifting up a heavy weight, then of course this makes sense. Similarly, if I have to work out something, solve some problem or other, tensing up mentally (which is to say, concentrating) makes perfect sense. But tensing up in the fact of life itself, as if life itself were a heavy weight to be lifted, or a problem to be solved, takes us into the realm of anxiety.

 

When we are anxious it is this chronic unrelieved ‘tensing up’ that causes us all the distress, all the suffering. We don’t see this however because we think that it is whatever problems or  issues we are faced with at the time that are the source or origin of our distress, and so we try to solve them as quickly as we can so that we can be free from it. This only makes matters worse however because trying to get rid of all issues the minute they arise exacerbates the underlying chronic unrelieved tension, and it is this chronic unrelieved tension that is the true author of our suffering. Try to solve innumerable tasks and issues just drives the tension up a notch. The logic behind the attempt to eradicate all problems is of course that when they are all gotten rid of we will at last be able to relax, but experience shows that this never ever happens. There are always more issues piling up for us to attend to – life is a never-ending conveyer belt of problems and issues and tasks and jobs and ‘general responsibilities’.

 

We never obtain that longed-for relief as a result of frantically solving problems, sorting out tasks and attending to issues or responsibilities because the real source of the pressure isn’t in these problems, tasks, issues and responsibilities but in my ‘attitude’, so to speak. My ‘attitude’ is one of high-alertness, of maximum vigilance and tension. But we can’t say that this attitude, this constant unremitting underlying state of inner tension is ‘the problem’ because saying this simply adds more fuel to the fire. If we treat the constant unremitting underlying tension as the problem that need to be fixed or solved or otherwise dealt with then this just makes us tense up even more, in readiness to deal with the problem. Trying to do something about this inner tension only causes me to tense up all the more, and so if I was ‘feeling the pinch’ before I will be feeling it twice as much, three times as much, a hundred times as much. The more I try to do something about the tension the tenser I get and the tenser I get the more I feel that I have to do something about the situation! I’m caught on the treadmill of runaway thinking and I don’t know how to get off…

 

The reason we find ourselves in this trap is because we don’t have any other possibility of relating to difficulties other than trying to fix or solve them (or if we can’t do this, wishing or hoping that we could fix of solve them). This ‘lack of any other possible modality of relating’ is after all what lies behind the anxiety in the first place. All we know is the modality of ‘trying to change the way things are’ (or – failing this – of wanting or wishing to change the way things are, and feeling that we ought to change them even if we can’t, even if it is a practical impossibility for us to change anything). This is the modality of doing.

 

The possibility that we are missing when we are anxious is the modality of being. The possibility that doesn’t seem to be available to us (that we are in effect blind to) in anxiety is the possibility of being the way that we are rather than changing (or rather constantly trying to change) the way that we are. There is a reason for us being blind to this possibility. After all, in anxiety all we are is ‘straining’ or ‘striving’ or ‘trying’. Everything that we are is caught up within this constant massive effort that we are making. Everything that we are is subsumed within this habitual or automatic constant attempt to change things, or fix things, or escape from things. This is the essence of the situation – being subsumed in this way in ‘doing mode’ so that straining and more straining is all that we know. We are reduced to this – if straining or tensing up inside doesn’t work then the only option that is left open to us is the option of straining and tensing even more.

 

This chronic inner straining or tension is very much like a muscular cramp or spasm – once the cramping ‘takes hold’ then there is nothing we can do to avert the process. We just have to wait for it to ease up in its own time, acutely painful though it may be. Obviously if I ‘tense up’ against the cramp in any way this only exacerbates the underlying situation. The same is true for the mental cramp of generalized anxiety – anything I do to try to make it go away only adds to it. Even telling myself not to be anxious makes me more anxious – after all, telling myself not to be anxious, trying to ‘talk away the anxiety’, is me tensing up against the anxiety. Since the anxiety is nothing more than chronic ‘tensing up’ anyway, how can this possibly help? Even wishing that I wasn’t anxious is a form of tensing up – it is a form of resistance, and any resistance to anxiety always exacerbates that anxiety.

 

So what we need to learn is how to refrain from tensing up. What we need to learn is how to not resist the fact of our anxiety – which is itself nothing more than a huge mass of chronic automatic resistance. Our automatic reaction is of course to try to deliberately refrain from tensing up, to deliberately – by act of will – try not to resist. Needless to say this doesn’t work because anything I do deliberately is resistance, anything I do on purpose, as an act of will, is ‘tensing up’. I can’t do ‘not doing’. I can’t deliberately get out of ‘doing mode’. I can’t ‘not do’ on purpose because ‘on purpose’ means straining and tensing and striving and trying and wanting and hoping. So what is the answer? How do I get back from ‘doing’ to ‘being’?

 

The first step is not to try to stop trying, to not resist our own resisting. Instead of trying not to try, of trying to stop trying not to try, and so on (which is of course a road that never comes to an end) I give myself permission to be whatever way it is that I am just for five minutes. This is a small beginning but it is also a realistic one because this is always a possibility – I give myself permission to be whatever way I actually am just for this short space of time. Any longer would be asking too much. Any longer (in the beginning, anyway) would translate into ‘pressure to perform’, pressure to be a certain way, and that would be counterproductive. We don’t want to turn meditation into yet another task…

 

After giving myself permission to be the way I am for five minutes I can then begin to be mindful of the way that I am (whatever way that is). So I sit there (or lie there), close my eyes if I can and gently start to notice what is going on for me. The chances are that I will notice myself being tense, that I will notice myself automatically straining to change myself, or to change my situation. This is like noticing that my muscles are locked into a spasm or cramp. Noticing this inner underlying chronic tension is synonymous with feeling the pain of that tension – just as noticing a physical cramp is synonymous with feeling the pain of that cramp. At this point I remind myself – if necessary – that I have given myself permission to be whatever way I am and ‘the way that I am’ is ‘being tense’. So just for the next five minutes I can allow that tension to be there, having given it permission to be there, and also having given permission of the pain of the tension to be there.

 

Allowing myself to be tense means gently noticing that I am tense – I bring my attention to the pain of the tension and give that pain permission to be there, just for a few minutes. This is like touching something very gently with my finger – I touch it but I don’t try to push or apply pressure. I am just acknowledging that whatever I am touching is there, just by ‘tipping off’ it very gently with the outstretched tip of my finger. In the same way when I notice my underlying inner tenseness I just bring my attention (which is to say, my awareness) to it very gently, acknowledging that it is there without trying to change it in any way. This is a very gentle and undemanding exercise, but it is also highly significant because it is the beginning of what we have forgotten how to do – it is the beginning of ‘being mindful’, the beginning of the practice mindfulness. We’re learning something very challenging; we’re learning how to stop always treating life as ‘a task’, or as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. We’re learning how to get off the non-terminating conveyor belt of the thinking mind….

 

 

 

 

 

Paying Attention With The Whole Of Your Body

A good way to come out of the uncomfortably cramped and over-regulated little ‘office-space’ inside our heads is to use the whole body as a sense-organ, rather than just listening narrowly ‘through the prescribed channels’, so to speak.

 

Normally we attend mainly to the senses of vision and hearing, smell and taste, and on occasion to bodily feelings of either pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort. But these sensory channels are – almost always – routed through the head, through the rational mind. Because this sensory input is routed through the ‘central processing unit’ which is the rational mind we always do the same thing with it: we process it, we categorize it, we evaluate it, we compare it with our memories, with our expectations, with some kind of taken-for-granted ‘framework of interpretation’.

 

Via this rule-based business of processing we establish a relationship to the information that we are receiving so that we either like it or dislike it, and then having established this relationship we try to control what happens next on this basis. The ‘relationship’ in question is all about us being in control. Evaluating, measuring, categorizing, analyzing, comparing and so on is all typical run-of-the-mill ‘head-type’ stuff – the type of stuff that goes on automatically (and pretty much incessantly) in the ‘central processing unit’ which is the rational mind.

 

This processing operation of the rational mind is useful in specific instances, but it is not useful when it is running the whole time, running without ever taking a break. When everything we experience is being routed through the central processing unit of the thinking mind then this is very far from being useful – on the contrary, this then becomes something that very significantly detracts from our quality of life. After all, what is left of life after it has been filtered through the rational mind? The actual taste or flavour of life is then lost and all we get instead is a whole load of dry mental evaluations – mental evaluations that are coupled with automatic reaction-pathways of one sort or another. Instead of enjoying life, we end up thinking about it (or automatically reacting to it).

 

We might assume that automatically evaluating and reacting to life is life (since we don’t know any different) but it isn’t! Really this is keeping life at arm’s length, keeping it at a safe distance. Because we’re always in control (or trying to be in control, which comes down to the same thing) there is always a gap between us and life and this ‘gap’ equals the rational (or controlling) mind…

 

The degree to which I think about life is the degree to which I am separate from it, isolated from it, fragmented from it. My thinking about life is a gap I can never bridge just so long as I keep on thinking, just so long as I keep on comparing and evaluating and analyzing and planning.

 

What happens when the processing mind never disengages is that we think about life instead of actually living it, which isn’t the same thing at all. As we have said, thinking is good for certain things – it is good for solving specific problems – but since life as a whole is not a problem, or a puzzle to be solved, when we think about it the whole time we have missed the point! When the machine of the mind is left running permanently then what happens is that life is turned into a kind of ‘administrative problem’ – something to be sorted through and put into the appropriate boxes. It’s all just a dry mechanical process. Its accountancy…

 

The only thing the mind knows how to do is sort stuff: it goes through its automatic procedures, its protocols, its routines, its mechanical operations. When we see stuff, hear stuff, taste stuff, feel stuff the CPU of the mind – restless as ever, unwilling to stay still as ever – causes us to evaluate what we see, hear, feel and taste. It causes us to run innumerable comparisons. And yet this kind of business is only useful when a specific job is being done – otherwise, it is all just a waste of time and energy!

 

This processing business is a lot worse than merely being ‘a waste of time and energy’ – it is a senseless mechanical process by which the beauty and profundity of ‘unprocessed reality’ is being systematically degraded on an ongoing basis, turned into yet more empty mental chatter, turned into a pointless time-consuming exercise in accountancy…

 

The head compares and evaluates, evaluates and compares – this is what it does. This is all that it can do. And yet if there is no specific job to be done then what is the point in all this activity? If reality is already there, all around me, then what on earth is the point in me constantly commenting on it, trying to ‘do things’ with it as if it were some sort of puzzle to be worked out? What is the point in me constantly trying to improve it or fix it?

 

Comparing and evaluating is all the head can do, just as a tin opener is really only any good for opening tins. When I have opened the tin then I put down the tin opener, I have no further use for it, but the tin-opener which is the thinking mind never gets put down. It is kept running the whole time! In this way the whole world gets turned into a tin of pineapple chunks or peach slices…

 

When the head is kept running all the time it just turns into a useless racket – a humming, buzzing, clattering noise that is always going on somewhere in the background, and which detracts in a major way from our enjoyment and appreciation of life. It uses up energy and soaks up our precious attention and completely shatters the stillness that is all around us with the useless rotten racket it is making the whole time, like an empty-headed fool who never stops yakking day and night. The more empty-headed the fool the more he has to say, and the more energy he puts into saying it!

 

The mechanical mind causes us to be forever attending to what it thinks is important, and never to what is genuinely meaningful, and as a result our quality of life is savagely curtailed, viciously truncated. We don’t on the whole notice this curtailment, this truncation, but that is because we simply ‘don’t know any better’. We have got used to it – we think it’s normal. The mind and its mechanical carry on is all that I know.

 

So we just go on paying attention to what the mechanical mind wants us to pay attention to, which is basically the same old thing, the same old thing, the same old thing, repeated over and over again. What else can a machine do? We are so helplessly captivated by the senseless, automatic ‘repetition of the old’ that we almost always miss out on the beauty of ‘the new’, which is there all around us if only we could see it…

 

The helpful thing about paying attention with the whole body is therefore that this breaks us out of the habit of evaluating and comparing everything we experience – it bypasses the usual channels, so to speak. It takes ‘the processing mind’ out of the equation. The exercise works best if carried out in the open air where there is likely to be more chance of the wind or the sun being felt on the body. It is as if I am listening with the whole of my body, rather than just my ears.

 

What I do for this exercise is to sit or lie outside with my eyes shut for about twenty minutes or so, in a natural environment if possible, and I pay attention to that environment with my whole body. If there is a sensation of any sort of breeze or touch of the air on my skin this is very helpful, and if I can feel the sun or a sensation of either hot or cold this also helps a lot. It is as we have said as if I am using my entire body as a sense organ, as if I am listening with my whole body rather than just narrowly paying attention, with my judging mind, to what I hear and see. I am simply ‘being there’, rather than ‘being there as an information processor’…

 

There will of course still be sounds but for the twenty minutes that I am sitting or lying I just ‘allow those sounds to be there’, just as I allow any sensations on (or in) my body to be there, without bothering to analyze them or make sense of them in any way. It is the central processing unit of the mind that analyzes and makes sense of things, and for this exercise the central processing unit of the mind is allowed to rest, is allowed a holiday, is allowed to go off duty…

 

So any sounds, like any other perceptions, are just allowed to be there. They are not singled out for processing, they are not picked out for individual attention, they are all just allowed to become part of the overall sense impression. All my perceptions are simply allowed to be part of a unified whole without any compartmentalization, without drawing any boundaries around this feeling or that feeling, this sensation or that sensation. I notice what it feels like to be paying attention in this way, but I don’t make any effort to do anything with what I am experiencing. It’s just ‘what’s happening right now’…

 

If a train of thought appears and starts to kidnap my attention – as trains of thought always do! – then I pay attention to this process happening. I notice the way in which the thoughts greedily grab hold of my attention, I notice the ‘narrowing’ that takes place when this happens, and then I gently come back to the wide-open unified stream of sensations that the thoughts are trying to take me away from. I gently come back to the peaceful experience of ‘being in my body’ rather than ‘being in my head’ – which is never peaceful, never spacious.

 

The kidnapping process whereby I get sucked up into my thinking and then promptly imprisoned in claustrophobically narrow office-space of the processing mind only works when I don’t notice myself being kidnapped, it only works when I don’t notice being taken away from what was happening before, and so all I need to do is see it happening. Then when I see it happening I bring my attention back into the totality of the ‘whole body’ experience, which as we have said has no compartments, no divisions, in it.

 

The whole-body experience has a quality to it which is alive and vivid and at the same time very peaceful, and this is a quality which is totally different from the experience of being trapped in my head, which is dull, sterile, mechanical and unsettling in its nature rather than being peaceful. Once I learn to see this essential difference then it is much easier for me to notice being kidnapped away into the dreary tiresome colourless anxiety-provoking world of my thoughts. It is like noticing the sun momentarily going behind a cloud.

 

The ‘whole-body’ experience is very much not part of the mental inventory – it does not belong in the dusty bureaucratic filing system of the central processing unit. It is not a thought but a reality! This is a much wider and more spacious reality than the world of my thoughts and because it is so much bigger and wider any thoughts that arise will in time naturally dissolve back into the vastly more expansive, ‘all-accepting’ realm of unprocessed awareness.

 

Unprocessed awareness is the natural state of affairs – it comes before everything else and so it itself can never be lost. Unprocessed awareness is the ‘original consciousness’ that was there before I started processing stuff, before I started thinking about things, analyzing and comparing things, and this original consciousness can never be disturbed or spoiled or contaminated. It can only ever be temporarily covered up or obscured…

 

Unprocessed awareness is the priceless gift I am always throwing away! Or we could also say that it is the priceless gift which I am always parcelling up with my thoughts, with my evaluations, and then filing away somewhere in the dusty recesses of my over-officious bureaucratic rational mind!

 

Unprocessed awareness is the untouched reality of the present moment as it unfolds. This unfolding moment is always unique – it does not exist in relation to something else, it is not constructed (or validated) in comparison to something. It does not have to be ‘fitted in’ to some scheme of things, some assumed framework of thinking. It stands alone – it has nothing to do with anything that we have ever thought before and this is what makes it real. It is not part of our thinking.

 

Coming back into unprocessed awareness is a movement from what we thought we knew into what we realize we don’t know – it is a movement, therefore, from the static enclosed prison of the categorizing mind into the open-ended freedom of actual reality…

 

 

 

Hooked On Controlling

Mindfulness – we might say – is where we aren’t fighting with ourselves, managing ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing (or ‘soothing’) ourselves the whole time. It isn’t quite right to say this though because when we practice mindfulness we don’t try to stop ourselves from fighting ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing or soothing ourselves – if it was the case that we were trying to stop ourselves from doing all this then we’d still be controlling ourselves!

 

And yet the other side of the coin is that when we really are trying to control ourselves, manage ourselves, et cetera, then all of our focus is on the goal of ‘being in control’, the goal of ‘successfully managing ourselves’, and whenever our attention is wholly upon this goal – or upon any goal – we not being mindful, we are not being aware. When our eye is ‘on the goal’ then it’s all about ‘how great it will be if the goal is attained’ or ‘how terrible it will be if it isn’t attained’ and this is the very antithesis of being mindful, being aware!

 

Mindfulness is so very often confused with ‘soothing the mind’ (or ‘quietening our thoughts’) but this then is merely another form of goal-orientated behaviour. When we’re engaged in attempted ‘self-quietening’ then we are not actually being aware at all because we are – as usual – fixated upon the two extremes of ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’! To successfully soothe or quieten our minds equals ‘getting it right’ and not to do so equals ‘getting it wrong’; we’re busy controlling in other words, and when we’re busy controlling then there is never any time for awareness. There’s no time for life itself, when it comes down to it – ‘life is something that will happen when we successfully control, when we get to the end of our control sequence’, or so we think! First we have to ‘tick all the boxes’, in other words, and then we can live…

 

It’s not that we think this consciously – is just a kind of a thing we are automatically assuming without ever realising what it is that we have automatically assumed. We imagine that when everything is properly managed, when we get ‘all our ducks in a row’, then we will be better able to let go of our controlling and then ‘kick back and enjoy life’. We imagine that we’ll finally be able to ‘chill out and let our hair down’… We’re assuming, in other words, that ‘controlling/managing’ is somehow a good preparation for ‘letting go’, which is clearly not the case at all. Controlling no more prepares us for ‘letting go of control’ than taking heroin twice a day prepares us for giving up the heroin at some future date!

 

Quietening our minds isn’t a good preparation for being mindful therefore; it’s just another form of controlling and controlling is a slippery slope to yet more controlling. It’s certainly not a pathway to giving up controlling! And yet if we deliberately try to stop managing our own thinking then this too is ‘managing’, this too is ‘controlling’. So how do we get out of this trap? How do we let things happen naturally? How do we get back into the flow? The key is not falling for the trick that our mind is always playing on us, which is getting us to believe that when we control successfully, then we will somehow be free.

 

This really is the ‘big illusion’, the illusion that keeps us ‘hooked on controlling’. Controlling is an unfree state of mind – it’s unfree because we are constantly tied up by the need to make sure that the good outcome happens rather than the bad outcome. This doesn’t leave us any space (or ‘freedom’) to do anything else, or to be ‘aware’ of anything else. The goal (i.e. the ‘good outcome’) represents freedom for us and that’s why we chase it as avidly as we do! We are the greyhounds and the mechanical hare is the goal which represents our release from the mechanical (or ‘unfree’) situation that we are unhappily trapped in. The goal is unconsciously associated with ‘the end of all our problems’, in other words, which is clearly ‘wishful thinking’ on an epic scale!

 

To actually see the absurdity of this is to be free from the power of the illusion, therefore. This simply means ‘seeing things clearly’, or ‘seeing things for what they are’ – our belief is that if we control tightly enough, then through this feat of controlling we will eventually become free, even though controlling (i.e. being constantly subject to the need to control) is the very antithesis of ‘being free’. I’m doing the very thing that prevents me from ever being free, yet I imagine this by investing in it enough (and ‘enough’ here means 100%) then everything is somehow going to work out for me. I imagine, in other words, that the payoff for my dedication, the payoff for my investment, will be the prize of ‘freedom’.

 

Practicing mindfulness means that we are aware of our mechanical nature (i.e., our constantly controlling or managing or striving) without fighting against it. It’s one thing to have a momentary awareness of the mechanical forces that are controlling us and to immediately try to fight against them, and quite another to be aware, and yet not fight. We are living the unconscious (or mechanical) life, and yet we are at the same time aware in it. We’re living our run-of-the mill everyday life, as who we actually are, in accordance with the way that we actually are, but we’re doing it consciously, with great sensitivity and without lying to ourselves or turning a blind eye to anything. And the ‘key ingredient’ here is that we no longer have this flat unconscious belief that our mechanical behaviour is one day going to ‘pay off’ for us! There is a world of difference between being 100% committed to the mechanical way of life (without even knowing that we are) and ‘going through the motions’ of mechanical existence whilst no longer being 100% invested in the logic of that type of existence.

 

Normally – as we have said – we have total belief in the efficacy of purposeful or controlling activity to deliver the outcome that we want. Even if we aren’t particularly confident about our own ability to control, we still unquestioningly believe that controlling is the right road to go down, that ‘the instrument of thought’ and the purposeful activity that comes out of it can deliver us the outcome that we want. Even when we are anxious, and have a deep-seated doubt in our own ability to control effectively, and get things to turn out the way we want them to, we are still no closer to ‘doubting the doubt’, which is to say, doubting our unexamined belief that purposeful or controlling activity is the right tool for the job no matter what that job might be. I might be rubbish as a controller, which will I believe will have very bad consequences for me, yet I still don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to go’. I don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to freedom’. I only doubt myself.

 

This belief in the power of thought/control is pretty much absolute in everyday life and this is what keeps us unconscious (which is to say, ‘completely under the power of illusionary appearances’). To see with perfect, unstrained clarity that what is most important – which is to say, stillness or ‘inner connectedness’ – can never be attained through thinking or through purposeful activity completely changes things therefore. We are no longer ‘putting all our money on the wrong horse’, which is what is keeping us in the trap of the thinking mind. By pure habit we will of course still be putting a lot of money on that horse, but no longer all of it and that slight difference makes all the difference in the world! That in itself completely changes the dynamic of what’s going on – a little bit of light has entered the picture and nothing will ever be the same again…

 

Our normal way of being in the world is one in which we are constantly trying to achieve by purposefulness’. To be operating on the basis of the thinking/conceptualising mind is to be contingent constantly striving’, constantly trying to get things to be the right way’. That’s how the thinking conceptualising mind functions, that the way that it has to think to function. Thinking ‘strives’ just as a wheel rolls, just as the pendulum swings, just as an escalator escalates! Certainly it is true that some things need to be controlled, but the most important thing of all – as we have just said – can’t be arrived at via control or via purposeful doing, and this is stillness. We might wonder what is so great about stillness (which is obviously something that isn’t particularly valued in our society!) and the answer is simply that it is through stillness that we connect with who we really are. How important is that? This doesn’t mean that we have to be passive or withdrawn or disengaged – it just means that we aren’t constantly clutching at (or striving for) something the whole time. We’re not striving to attain the whole time, and this isn’t a mark of weakness or indifference! We can act all the more effectively when we are not constantly clutching or straining or striving – the action is much more spontaneous, much more fluid, much more ‘appropriate to the moment’ when we are not driven by ‘attachment’.

 

We can’t manipulate stillness, we can’t avail of it as part of our ‘overall strategy’ or ‘design’, we can’t make a goal of it any more than we can make goal of freedom. Particular goals are worth may be worth strategising for striving for, but life itself isn’t! Not only is life itself something that we can’t strain for or attain by skilful actions) it’s actually the case that we miss it every time when this is our approach, and when we are operating on the basis of the thinking mind then this – as we have just said – is inevitably going to be our approach. Thought can only ever grasp!

 

When we’re living life (or rather trying to live life!) on the basis of thought (or on the basis of control, which is the same thing) then we’re constantly ‘missing the mark’, we are constantly in a state of frustration, and this is why the Buddha states in his First Noble Truth that conditioned existence is dukkha, or ‘suffering/frustration’. Of course living on the basis of constant striving (or living on the basis of constantly ‘trying to attain’) is going to result in suffering and frustration – if the most important thing of all cannot be attained by striving, by controlling, by ‘managing’, then we’re actually working against ourselves the whole time, even though we think that we’re doing something to ‘help ourselves’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-Reflection

When we’re in mental pain, this pain – as we experience it – has a very precise relationship to our way of understanding ‘who we are’. To put this even more clearly, the pain that we are experiencing doesn’t just have ‘a precise relationship’ to our way of understanding who we are, it is a faithful reflection of that understanding. What this means is that any idea that we have of escaping the pain, or solving the problem that it poses to us, is no more than a momentarily comforting fantasy. It’s no more than a comforting fantasy but it’s also our sole preoccupation – it consumes us.

 

We could also put this in a simpler way and say that ‘our thinking about the pain that we’re in is itself the pain’, which is a curious thing to contemplate. The more pain we are in the more we think about this pain, which straightaway creates a trap that there doesn’t seem to be any way out of. This is ‘the trap of resistance’ – the more it hurts the more we resist and the more we resist the more it hurts. The more we turn our face away from our pain, the more the pain grows and we have to put ever-more effort into ignoring it, or running away from it. In a simplistic way we might say that our course of action in this case is clear, and that all we need to do is to take note of our error and then correct it. If turning away from our pain causes this pain to grow, then the answer must be to turn towards it instead.

 

We are underestimating the subtlety of the trap however if this is what we think. What we fail to see is that any sort of ‘deliberate stance’ that we take with regard to our inner pain equals ‘turning our face away’. What’s the motivation behind the manoeuvre to ‘turn to face the pain’, after all? If we are manoeuvring then there must be a motivation behind it, there must be something that is being aimed at, and what possible aim could it be other than escaping ‘from the pain’, after all? Why else do we do anything? If we sincerely wish to accept the pain that we are in then we wouldn’t be manoeuvring at all – there would be no need for it. If we were truly sincere and wished to unconditionally embrace the pain that we are in then we would also embrace the ‘extra pain’ that we are in as a result of turning our face away from the original pain. There would be no scheming, no manoeuvring.There would be no need for anything like that.

 

This is an old point, a point that has been made many times. When we try to accept pain or face pain then this is only in order to escape that same pain – is a ‘clever ploy,’ in other words. It’s a clever ploy to do something that is actually quite impossible to do because we can no more ‘face pain on purpose’ than we can successfully avoid or escape it! If we are trying to escape the pain then that is because we’re thinking about it and if we trying to face it then this is also because we’re thinking about it. It’s the thinking that constitutes the trap, not the particular type of thinking that we are engaged in. It’s not as if there is such a thing as ‘the right type of thinking’ that will enable us to escape from the trap! No thinking is the right thinking.

 

Thinking is itself a trap because it always involves us in self-reflection. Thinking is self-reflection – thinking always traps us in our own assumptions. As we said at the beginning of this discussion it’s not just that our mental pain has a very precise relationship to our way of understanding who we are, it is actually a faithful reflection of that understanding. By reacting in any way to the reflection, we solidify it, we confirm it as being true. The pain of our situation is the pain of our predicament in thinking that ‘this sufferer  is who we are’. If we were to move any distance at all from this fixed position of self-identification then the pain that we are in would immediately change and lose its utterly oppressive nature – it only has that utterly oppressive nature because we think that we are that ‘self’, because we think that we are that ‘sufferer’. The pain that I am afflicted with is the shadow of the ‘self-delusion’ that I am caught up in. I am ‘identifying with the sufferer’;  i am identifying with my manoeuvring, with my scheming and calculating, with my endless ‘thinking’.

 

The reflection of ourselves that we see and react to as a result of our thinking is a very precarious and transitory type of thing therefore. It’s only there because of our thinking – when we think we solidify it, we confirm it as ‘the only possible reality’. We are potentially very free indeed therefore – we could ‘float freely in any direction’, so to speak, but not if we solidify the picture we have of ourselves and our situation by thinking about it, or reacting to our thoughts about it. As we have said, we are the pain and the pain is us. The specific sense of identity which is conditioned by my reactions to the pain (or my resistance to the pain) gives rise to the pain. I am my pain and my pain is me, and so the idea of ‘escape’ from it is a complete non-starter. If I am constructing myself in terms of my absolute need to escape from the pain then how can I ever go beyond this pain?

 

If I try to escape or turn away from the pain then this turning away reaffirms the concrete sense of myself that I am identifying with, and if I try instead to turn towards the pain (which I may come to see as ‘the smarter move’) then this too reaffirms the concrete sense of self. Who is it that is either ‘turning away’ or ‘turning towards’, after all? Or purposeful action reaffirms the reality of the one who is striving to enact these purposes, just as all thought reaffirms the reality of the one who is having the thought, and this is the nature of the trap that we are caught in. It doesn’t matter how much I twist and turn with my clever thinking and my goal-orientated actions, all I’m doing is digging myself deeper into the hole.

 

We can’t try to ‘do nothing’ or ‘think nothing’ either – ‘freezing’ isn’t the answer. Who is the one who has to ‘do nothing’ or ‘think nothing’, after all? If we tried to ‘do nothing’ then we would identify with the one who is trying to do it; if we try to ‘have no thoughts’ then we would be identifying with the proposed ‘non-thinker’! The trap is that we are ‘identified’ with a particular idea of ourselves; a particular idea of ourselves that has been created by our thinking (by our resistance, in other words). All of our thinking, all of our purposeful activity, comes from this particular idea of who we are and so how are these plans and strategies ever going to work? Any method (any method whatsoever) that we are presented with is always going to be used by this ‘idea of myself’ to perpetuate itself and so how is this going to help matters any? How is any method or strategy ever going to genuinely help us, rather than proving to be just another level of the trap for us to get caught in?

 

We keep on talking about ‘skills’ and ‘tools’ in the world of mental health care – but who do we imagine is going to use the skills, use the tools? Who is it really in aid of? All of this effort and technology is in the service of the mind-created self (which is to say, ‘the conditioned identity’) not in aid of who we truly are. We have no allegiance to ‘who we truly are’. We know nothing about our true unconditioned nature; we don’t even have any curiosity – we think we know everything already. All strategies, all cleverness belongs to the conditioned identity – consciousness (which is our true nature) has no need of such tricks however. The conditioned identity relies on controlling because that’s how it comes into being, because that’s how it is maintained and perpetuated, but consciousness has nothing whatsoever to do with control. If it has something to do with anything, it is honesty, which is somehow the one thing we tend to overlook in our overly-technical approach to mental healthcare. When honesty comes into the picture (instead of controlling) then the phenomenon of ‘self-reflection’ comes to an end and the door to the trap suddenly swings open…

 

 

 

 

Looking For Freedom Outside Ourselves

It isn’t just that who we are (or the way that we are) is in itself ‘good enough’, and so on this account we don’t need to be constantly striving to ‘better ourselves’ or ‘improve ourselves’ (and be constantly recriminating against ourselves if we can’t do so) but rather that who we are (or the way that we are) is our only possible means of liberation, our only possible way to freedom and happiness! We need look no further than the way we actually are – right at this very moment, in other words.

 

The chances are of course that most of us would immediately dismiss this bold assertion as being utterly nonsensical. How could anything be that easy? How could ‘being the crappy old way that we already are’ be enough to release us from our suffering? If nothing else, we would probably say, this will prove to be a recipe for total self-indulgent laziness. Another thing that we might say is that we know lots of people who already think that they are ‘fine just the way they are’ and that this complacent attitude of theirs hasn’t done them any good at all. People who think that they are great the way they are generally jerks, after all!

 

The first thing that we could say about these objections is that ‘accepting ourselves’ is not an easy thing at all – it’s actually the hardest thing we could ever do. Climbing Mount Everest is easy in comparison! The second thing we could point out is that people we might know who seem to think that they’re perfectly fine just the way that they are – and consequently make no effort at all to change – aren’t accepting themselves at all. They might seem to be but what’s really happening is that they have some kind of image of themselves which seems acceptable (or even pretty wonderful!) but which is completely illusory, completely unreal. They aren’t accepting themselves at all therefore – they’re accepting their illusion of ‘who they would like to believe they are’ and obviously this can’t be beneficial to anyone.

 

We usually don’t come anywhere close to seeing ourselves as we really are, never mind ‘accepting ourselves’. We have a concept about ourselves, an idea or image of who we are, and we relate to this instead. There is therefore a ‘gap’ between ‘us as we actually are’ and ‘us as we perceive ourselves to be’ and this gap tends to grow bigger and bigger with time. In this ‘image-based’ world of ours we ‘grow into the false idea of ourselves’ because that’s what we are presented with – we are given an identity that matches the type of world we happen to find ourselves in. This is convenient for sure when it comes to operating within that world, but still isn’t who we are. We have ‘convenience’ instead of truth, therefore, but convenience only goes so far.

 

Another aspect of this process is that we become more and more separated from the painfully ‘underdeveloped’ aspect of ourselves as a result of social adaptation and this separation grows bigger with time because the pain associated with that neglected part of ourselves can only ever grow as long as it remains neglected. In the consensus reality we get rewarded (or validated) for developing in line with what society requires from us, and disincentivized from developing our true nature, which has consequences that are beneficial from the point of view of society but profoundly ‘non-beneficial’ from the point of view of the individual. The pressure to adapt to the social world is the same thing as the pressure to turn our backs on our core nature and this systematic neglect causes pain that we don’t want to look at. It’s painful to see what we have done, in other words, and our keenness to run away from this pain means that the gap between us as we are and us as we’d like to imagine we are just keeps on getting bigger. The rejection of the pain that stems from betraying our true nature forces us and more into the societal world because this is the only place we’re going to obtain validation for the false ‘image of who we are’.

 

We might naively think that it’s a fairly straightforward thing to ‘accept ourselves’ but nothing could be further from the truth. If we could find it within ourselves to ‘be ourselves as we actually are’ then we have already – just in this humble act – done something completely tremendous. Our instinct is to go completely the other way and strain to achieve some ideal, some idea we have (or society has) about how we should be. Our instinct is always to do the very opposite of ‘just being ourselves’ and this is because we fundamentally believe that there is no good at all to come from ‘just being ourselves’. As we are (we believe) we are ‘unredeemed’; we are ‘awaiting salvation’. We might not know that this is what we believe but we believe it all the same – our ‘orientation’ is pointing fundamentally away from ourselves, and this is true for almost all of us. It’s the prescribed way to be…

 

What we are saying here is therefore that – on a subconscious level – we don’t believe that there is any great value in us being the way that we actually are. The way that we actually are doesn’t have any possibilities in it; it is disregarded, dismissed without even the slightest consideration. Our personal reality ‘as it is’ is dismissed as being intrinsically worthless (even though we don’t see ourselves doing this) and we are constantly ‘reaching out’ to somewhere else where we think the advantage must be. Everything worthwhile – we imagine – lies in ‘the realm of what is yet to be achieved’ (i.e. ‘the realm of improvement’) and this keeps us in a constant state of anticipation. Either we are hopefully anticipating the result that we want or we’re anxiously anticipating the result that we don’t want. We’re always ‘directed externally’ – our attention is always on whatever advantages or disadvantages might come from the outside.

 

This brings to mind Jung’s often-repeated quote ‘Who looks outside dreams; who looks within awakes’. Our ‘dream-state’ is to be hypnotised by the false perception that ‘how we are in ourselves’ can be either improved or disimproved by events occurring on the outside of us (or – as we could also say – by the erroneous belief that the possibility for change lies outside of how we actually are, within the domain of control). We all want to be happy and lead fulfilling lives and we imagine that this can be achieved by successfully controlling things – and by things we include ourselves. We might not be foolish enough to think that we can buy a happier or more meaningful state of existence but we do nevertheless have this deep-seated belief that if we try hard enough in the right way we can improve ourselves to become the sort of person we’d like to be. Essentially – as we have said – we straining towards some sort of mental image, and we imagine that this projected ‘image’ can actually become a reality for us. We’re looking for salvation ‘outside of ourselves’. We’re looking for freedom outside ourselves…

 

Isn’t ‘looking outside of ourselves’ what self-help books and online seminars are all about, after all? Isn’t this what therapy is all about? If I go to therapy then in most cases what happens is that I’m presented with a certain set of ideas and theories and techniques that I can use – with the support of the therapist – to improve my situation, to make it less painfully conflicted or blocked than it was before. That’s why I’m going to therapy, after all. This idea makes plenty of sense – it makes complete sense to us in fact. Whether it ‘makes sense’ to us or not makes no difference however because what we are trying to do is completely absurd! It is completely absurd because our orientation is all back-to-front – it is (as we have been saying) orientated away from ourselves and towards the ‘realm of improvement’. It’s quite natural that we should be orientated in this way – our state of being is a painful one after all, and the nature of pain is that it makes us want to move away from it!

 

It’s perfectly natural that we should be orientated away from pain (away from the way that we actually are) and towards the possibility of escaping this pain, but for this to be somehow seen as a legitimate therapeutic modality, for this orientation be actively encouraged by those whose job is it is to be of help to people who have suffering from ongoing emotional or psychological pain is something of an irony. No one should tell us or imply to us that we ought to ‘stay with the pain’, but at the same time it is not our job as mental healthcare workers to encourage people suffering from mental pain to try to escape from it, via whatever so-called ‘legitimate methods’ it is that we are supplying them with. If we do this then we are simply adding ‘delusion on top of delusion’; if we do this then we are adding a whole new level of neurotic avoidance to the mix – a ‘legitimised’ or ‘officially-correct’ or ‘societally-sanctioned’ form of avoidance…

 

The trouble is that we are being aggressive  either way – if I say to someone that they should ‘sit with the pain’ (because that’s the right or helpful thing to do) then this is pure counter-productive aggression on my part, and if I go the other route and say that it is their responsibility to do ‘X, Y, and Z’ and thereby work constructively with their difficulties so as to improve their situation this is still ‘pure counter-productive aggression’! I’m being violent either way, and ‘violence’ (i.e. ‘trying to force things to be the way we want them to be’) always adds to the underlying suffering rather than lessening it in any way. The root of the dilemma that we are in (both both as ‘the therapist’ and ‘the sufferer’) is therefore that we’re ‘hung up on making the right choice’. No matter what choice we go with we’re still trying to wrestle with the situation and change it from being the way that it actually is – either we try to making ourselves stay with the pain, or try to make ourselves get away from the pain. Either way we are at loggerheads with ourselves, either way we are having an argument with reality! Aggression always comes out of thought – if we are being aggressive or controlling with reality then this is always because we are ‘thinking about it’; it’s because we are trying to work out what ‘the right answer’ to our situation is. If this is what we doing then we will be doing it forever; we’ll be ‘doing it forever’ because if we’re trying to find out what the right answer is then this means that were stuck in our heads, stuck in our thinking, and thinking is never more than a crowbar which we are using to try to change things.

 

It’s so very hard for us to see this! If we could see it then straightaway we’d laugh at the utter absurdity of what we trying to do! We’re trying to use the ‘crowbar of thought’ to change the way reality is. We trying to use the crowbar of thought to change ‘the way things are right now’ to be ‘some other way’, and yet what is ‘thinking’ other than coming up with a particular way of describing the world to ourselves and then acting on the basis of that description? When we try to change ourselves (or control ourselves) we first have to describe (or ‘model’) ourselves, therefore. This, as we all know, works very with some things – technical understanding gives rise to the possibility of controlling what we understand – but we can’t turn this trick  on ourselves because (counter-intuitively, in this rational culture of ours) we cannot gain a ‘technical understanding of ourselves’!  We are in some way that we completely fail to see ‘our own blind-spot’; as Alan Watts says – the eye cannot see itself, the tooth cannot bite itself and the tongue cannot taste itself.

 

Nobody can control their own state of mind because controlling would only work if we first had a complete understanding (obtained from some kind of theoretical external viewpoint) of ourselves – which is something that we believe to be totally possible since we aren’t able to see the limitations of thought or the logical mind. The problem is this however – if it were possible for us to ‘completely understand ourselves’ from some external (or ‘abstract’) theoretical viewpoint then ‘who we are’ would be no more than a logical extension of that external, abstract viewpoint. This is what creates the blind-spot because who we really are – which is neither ‘external’ nor ‘theoretical’ nor ‘abstract’ – has now been left out of our calculations. ‘Who we really are’ has been forgotten about in the course of the rational game we are playing – the rational game we are playing and can’t help playing!

 

What we can’t see is that ‘what’s happening is just what’s happening!’ What could be simpler than this? This is actually too simple for us – we have to add the complication (or the ‘twist’) of thinking about it. We have to ask ourselves ‘what the right answer is’, or ‘what the right way to look at things is’, and this confuses us. This confuses us right from the word ‘go’ because it implies that there is such a thing as ‘the right answer’ or ‘the right way to look at things’ and that’s just plain nonsense. What’s happening is just what’s happening – our descriptions or deliberations aren’t necessary! When we try to shove thought in there, in order to gain some kind of advantage or foothold, all we gain is ongoing confusion and paralysis.

 

When we ask what the right way to be with ourselves is therefore what we are doing is adding another level of complication, another level of neurotic avoidance. We are banjaxing ourselves just as soon as we ask this question because we are approaching everything from the point of view of the thinking mind and, as we have just pointed out, this has the immediate and distinctly unhelpful effect of placing us ‘outside of ourselves’.  We’re stuck in some kind of disconnected (or ‘alienated’) abstract mental space. We are ‘on the outside looking in’, and who doesn’t know what this feels like? This is ‘neurotic hell’ in a nutshell, and everyone knows what neurotic hell is like…

 

The way the world is is the way the world is and the way we are is the way we are…  It’s as simple as that. If someone waves hello at us then they’re waving hello, if a dog barks then a dog barks, if a gust of wind blows your hat off then a gust of wind blows your hat off. If we’re happy then we’re happy and if we’re sad then we’re sad! This isn’t ‘fatalism’ or anything ridiculous like that (fatalism is just an artificial mind-created attitude, after all) – it’s just ‘being in the moment’ and the moment is only place we can be. There is no choice there; there’s no ‘right or wrong way’ in it! Instead of choice, there’s actual freedom. It’s a mark of our own colossal stupidity if we think that there is ‘a right way and a wrong way’ to be in the present moment!

 

At the very core of all our confusion is therefore this very profound inability that we have to understand what freedom is. We’re clueless about freedom, even though we keep on talking about it. We’ve got the wrong idea about it entirely. We have – very foolishly – confused freedom with ‘choice’ and ‘choice’ – as we have said – is just ‘thought trying to shoehorn its way into the picture’. It’s ‘the thin end of the wedge’. Choice after all can only exist between ‘known alternatives’; it can only be found within the realm of the rational mind. so if we can never really know ‘what’s going on’ (because the unfolding present moment is always fundamentally unknowable) then how can we ‘choose’? What kind of foolishness is this? What is this great ‘hang-up’ about control that we have anyway other than ‘the neurotic refusal to live life unless we can first ‘know’ it’??!

 

Bizarrely, we imagine that freedom is something that exists within thought, within the closed and artificial domain of the thinking mind, whilst the truth of the matter is that freedom only exists where there is no thought. Freedom is freedom from thought; freedom is freedom from ‘known alternatives’…

 

Art: Eduardo Martinez, taken from creativebloom.com

 

 

 

 

 

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