Being In The World Without Thinking About Being In The World…

What we call ‘being meditative’ (or ‘being mindful’) simply means ‘being in the world without thinking about being in the world’. How simple is this? How much more simple and straightforward could anything be? And yet – simple or not, straightforward or not – the point is that we never ever do it. Being in the world without at the same time thinking about it is something that just doesn’t happen. It’s as if that is just too simple for us; we always have to think about we’re doing, we always have to over-complicate it. We always have to add that ‘extra ingredient’ – the extra ingredient of thought.

 

It’s not quite right to say that we never find ourselves ‘being in the world without thinking about being in the world’, however. On the very odd occasion it happens. Sometimes it happens. We’ve all had some experience of ‘simply being in the world’ – it happens every now and again, despite ourselves, despite our best efforts to keep ourselves perpetually busy! If we had to call ‘being in the world without thinking’ anything we’d probably just call it ‘an experience of peace’ or ‘an experience of stillness’. Such experiences are so natural, so unforced, and yet – in adulthood, at least – so very rare…

 

Even if we could just focus on this, and allow ourselves to see just how little genuine peace we have in our lives than that would change our outlook dramatically. It would wake us up somewhat, and then we might stand a better chance of not slipping right back into the busy-ness again. But we never do seem to focus on the startling ‘lack of stillness’ in our lives and as a result we carry on as we are, which is ‘moving from one thing to another without ever a break between them’. There’s no awareness of what we’re missing out on and so there’s no incentive to make any changes.

 

It gets so we think that this is what life is – going from one thing to another, seamlessly, without there ever being a gap. It’s like travelling on an escalator and never getting off because we’ve forgotten that it’s possible to do so. The ‘escalator’ is the thinking mind which keeps trundling on and on forever; of itself, it will never stop. As people often remark, the thinking mind doesn’t come with an ‘off button’ – it will never consider that it might be a good thing to switch off for a while. Or rather, it might sometimes think this but it will never ever do it. Thought will not cease its activity of its own accord any more than a boulder rolling down a steep hillside will suddenly stop by itself.

 

Life isn’t really ‘going from one thing to another’. That isn’t where life is to be found – on the contrary, life is to be found in the gaps, in the discontinuities, in the ‘cracks in the pavement’. It’s not to be found in ‘the official brochure of events’. Or to put this another way, ‘life is what happens when we unaccountably step off the escalator of the thinking mind’. Life is what happens we stop doing what we never do stop, which is thinking! Life – after all – is not a thought. Life isn’t what we think about life, even though we automatically assume (or ‘think’) that it is!

 

The problem is however that the world we live in – which is ‘the world of our structures and systems’ – tells us that life is all about going from one thing to another! In this world the message is that ‘the more things you can cram into the day the better that is’. Our culture doesn’t value peace or stillness – we hear the word used a lot but nothing is meant by it. It’s only lip-service. It’s a hollow word, like ‘freedom’. Our machine culture doesn’t value anything that isn’t constructed, produced or manufactured; it doesn’t value anything that isn’t ‘managed’ or ‘regulated’, anything that isn’t ‘an official or authorized product of the system’ – i.e. something that can be packaged up and sold to us. All the emphasis is on the wrong things; our attention is continually being directed in the wrong direction…

 

This isn’t a conspiracy in the usual sense of the word (although it looks very much like it), it’s just how thought works and the world we live in has been built by thought. Thought – or ‘the thinking mind’ – always directs our attention to ‘things’, which is to say, it always points at its own constructs, its own categories, such what we call ‘things’ are nothing more than the way it organizes the world. The thinking mind can’t focus on ‘the gap between things’ because it if does this then straightaway it turns ‘the gap between things’ into a thing, and this of course defeats the whole point of the exercise! The thinking mind can’t think about something that isn’t the product of its own thinking process – when it tries to then what happens is that it just ends up doing what it always does, which is ‘thinking about its own thoughts’.

 

We can’t blame thought for doing what it does and always directing our attention at its own constructs, its own categories because this is what it does. We can’t blame it for always pointing our attention at the ‘things’ coming down the never-ending conveyor belt rather than at the undefined space within which all of this is happening  since this that is something that it could never do anyway – that would be ‘outside of its design specifications’, so to speak, that would be outside its remit. Thought does what it’s supposed to do, and that’s all it ever can do. If we can actually see this – if we can see that we’re asking too much of thought, if we can see that we asking it to do something that just isn’t within its remit – then this insight would amount to a massive breakthrough in our understanding. This insight changes the whole dynamic of what’s going on…

 

We imagine that thought can do everything. We ‘over-value’ it, as Jung says. The thinking mind can’t deliver the world to us, even though we implicitly believe that it can, even though thought itself – like a clever politician – promises us faithfully that it can. Actually, what thought can do is very limited – it is very good at what it is supposed to do but this doesn’t mean that we should let it run our lives for us, which is what we do let it do. When we trust the machine which is the thinking mind to ‘run our lives for us’ then what we unfailingly end up with is this unremittingly busy world of ours that is made up of nothing else apart from logical systems and structures and which has the unacknowledged (or ‘covert’) function of keeping us distracted on a full-time basis from the reality of our own lives.

 

The reason why we can’t be in the world without at the same time constantly thinking about being in the world (which actually blocks us from being in the world) is before we are always ‘looking for advantage’. That’s one way of putting it, anyway – we’re looking out for the advantage in our situation and at the same time we’re watching out for any possible disadvantage, which comes to the same thing. What’s more – by way of an ironic twist – the reason we’re so busy scanning for the advantage the whole time is because is because the constraining or limiting effect of thought on us is causing us to feel (either unconsciously or consciously) that we are missing out on life  somehow and so we’re trying to make good this deficit. The other way this works is to cause us to be looking out for potential threats and dangers because the ‘invisible constraint’ that thought is putting on us is manifesting itself as a worry, either conscious or unconscious, that some disaster is lurking out there somewhere, and we have to take steps to secure ourselves against it.

 

Where the ‘irony’ comes in therefore is because thought is the cause of our problem as well as the (supposed) cure for it! The reason we have this conscious or unconscious perception that we’re missing out on something (or perhaps that we’re under threat from something, which is anxiety) is because we’re letting the machine of the thinking mind ‘run our lives for us’ and when we do this when end up – as we have said – being kept busy on a full-time basis but never actually getting anywhere real as a result and there’s no way that we can’t know about this ‘hollowness’ on some level or other. Thought constrains us, limits us, boxes us in, and effectively prevents us from having any genuine connection with the wider (or ‘unconditioned’) reality and so of course we feel that we are missing something. We ARE missing out – but thought can’t help us find what we’re missing!

 

When we are living life purely within the systems and structures that the thinking mind has created for us then this gives rise to a type of underlying pain or anguish that we cannot ordinarily be aware of and it is the need to do something about this ‘pain that we do not directly perceive’ that drives us in a lot of what we do. The unacknowledged need to escape this invisible pain is what is driving us to be ‘looking for the advantage’ the whole time. It makes us hungry with a hunger that can never be satiated. It drives us to be always calculating and controlling in our approach to life because we have the fundamental ‘base-line perception’ that something bad is going to happen to us (or could happen to us) if we don’t. We are living in ‘a fundamentally impoverished mind-created world’, in other words, and so of course we are always going to be ‘looking for advantage’, or ‘looking for gain’. This is what always happens when we unwittingly end up letting thought be our master.

 

What facilitates the whole ‘loop’ is our unexamined assumption that thought can solve all our problems, including those problems which it itself has made for us! This unquestioning trust in the power of thought to save us keeps us going around and around in the same old loop – the loop of thought. As soon as we actually see this however this unwarranted ‘trust’ in the thinking mind is undermined, and this insight changes the whole order of things, the whole dynamic of things. It’s like not voting for a politician! Thinking and scheming and analyzing won’t help us – that will just perpetuate our limited or constrained situation. Problem-solving and goal-setting won’t help us – that will just keep us prisoners in ‘the prison of thought’. What helps is to see the jailer for who he is instead of trusting that he is going to somehow save us! What will help us – in other words – is to place our trust in our awareness and intuition, instead of in the over-valued rational faculty…

 

 

Image taken from: photobucket.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overthinking Life

When we think “How do I be in the world?” this jinxes us. As soon as we have this thought (or any variant of it) we are jinxed – we’re jinxed and we can’t back-track out of it again, no matter how clever we might get, no matter what tricks we might try. Once we start trying to solve this problem we can’t ever stop, in other words.

 

As soon as we think “How do I be in the world?” or “What is the right way to live life?” we are overthinking it. This is a simple enough point to make (it’s the simplest point anyone could ever make, actually) but it also doesn’t happen to be a point that we want to hear! It doesn’t make any sense to us, and even if it did make sense we wouldn’t how make use of it. We’ve already gone down the slippery slope and there’s nothing that we can (deliberately) do to get out of the trap. Deliberation is the trap, after all!

 

The reason we are so averse to hearing this message, or any variant of it, is because we are convinced on a very deep level that there is a right way to think about things, that there is a right way to ‘approach life’. This is so obvious to us that we don’t even need to go around saying it. The fact that we have never actually hit upon this ‘right way’ doesn’t seem to discourage us with regard to this belief in the slightest! We’re convinced that there must be a rational (or thought-based) way to approach life, so we keep on doggedly looking for it…

 

This is the snag in a nutshell – that we believe that there must be some special angle that we can cleverly utilize, some special ‘Get-out-of-jail-free’ card that we can play. It makes so much sense to us that we should be able to find the right angle, the right approach. Our whole way of life is based on this unspoken assumption; our very ‘modality of existence’ is founded upon this premise. Our ‘modality of existing in this world’ is based on thought and thought – by its very nature – is always looking for answers, always looking for solutions.

 

Of course, ‘looking for answers’ or ‘looking for solutions’ sounds like a very good thing to us – it sounds like an admirable attitude to have. It sounds right and proper, and the fact that it sounds right and proper shows us something important about ourselves – it shows us that we have become divorced from reality itself. The point is that reality itself is neither right nor wrong, neither this nor that, and yet – when we are in the grip of thought – we go around assuming that everything must be either one way or the other. Because we see the world in this polar (or ‘split’) way we are constantly analysing and controlling; analysing / controlling has, in other words, become ‘our way of being in the world’.

 

The whole world has to fit into our categories of good/bad, right/wrong, valuable/not valuable therefore and this is an absolutely crazy situation. How can we do this to the world? Why would we want to? What is possessing us? And if we do this to the world then this means that we are also doing it to ourselves; we’re going to try to fit ourselves into these categories as well – we’re going to be either good or bad, right or wrong, valuable or not valuable and this is equally crazy. The world has nothing to do with our absurd categories and neither do we, and yet we’re making our sense of well-being dependent upon how well be are doing at the task of trying to make everything (and ourselves) be the way we think it should be (whether this ‘way’ is absurd or not).

 

All angles – without exception – do this to the world and so if we’re coming at everything from an angle (as we almost always are) then we are imposing this false duality both on ourselves and the world. That’s what ‘angles’ do – they split the world into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; that’s the whole point of an angle, after all. So one the one hand we feel that we are going to gain the advantage by ‘having an angle on things’ but on the other hand this cleverness of ours rebounds on us in a way that is not to our advantage at all! Our classifications end up classifying us, just as Carlos Castaneda says. The tool of thought very neatly ‘turns the tables on us’ and we end up being on the receiving end of the stick and catching a whack in the head rather than dishing one out, as we had intended to.

 

This doesn’t (as we have already pointed out) means that we don’t ever need to have an angle. That isn’t the point at all. It’s not that we never ever need an angle but rather that we don’t need to be ‘looking for the right angle’ on a nonstop basis. Specific situations arise in which we do need an angle (problems arise which do need a solution) but then once the matter has been dealt with one way or another the need is no longer there. Life itself is not ‘a problem to be solved’, in other words, even though we generally end up treating it as such. We end up treating life as if it were a problem to be solved because this is how thought works. This is what thought always does – thought always treats everything as a problem!

 

Thought always treats everything as a problem because that’s just the kind of phenomenon it is – it has to fit everything into boxes of its own making when stuff just doesn’t come ‘in boxes’, when life doesn’t come in boxes. More than this however, life becomes a serious problem to us when we have identified with thought and the products of thought. Life (very much) becomes a problem to me when I identify with the idea of myself that the thinking mind furnishes me with. The problem is really with life of course but with ourselves. The problem is with me, not the world! This is of course a classic example of how the conditioned mind always perceives the truth backwards – I say that the problem is with you, or with the world in general, but really the problem is in me.

 

The problem that we always need to be fixing (or trying to fix) when we have identified ourselves with thought (and the image of ourselves that thought provides us with) is that we’re always placing certain demands on life; we’re always wanting things to work out for us in a particular way, in our words. We have very serious ‘preferences’ – not just with regard to the way things work out for us, but with regard to what we unconsciously require reality to be. Being identified with thought means that we’re always seeing reality in a very narrow and stilted fashion – to us, this is what reality actually is and so we don’t see ourselves as imposing our own arbitrary brand of order onto the world around us.

 

The ‘problem’ that we’re trying to fix with our thinking is how to get reality to be the way we think it ought to be, therefore. We’re trying to twist things to be the way we assume they should be and we’re doing this without having the slightest awareness that this is what we’re doing, and this means that we’re locked into a never-ending series of problems, not just the one, because things are never going to inherently be the way that we unconsciously assume that they should be. This is an ongoing problem that we’re never going to solve because we’re looking at it all wrong – as we have said, the problem isn’t out there in the world but in ourselves and we’re never looking at ourselves. We’re only ever looking outwards at the problems that we ourselves have unwittingly projected onto the world. The problem isn’t that the universe doesn’t play ball, the problem is the fact that we are constantly trying to impose our absurdly narrow and stilted viewpoint onto it!

 

Trying to impose our own brand of order onto the world but not seeing that this is what we are doing (because we genuinely do think that this is the way reality should be) is the very essence of what is meant by the word ‘aggression’. This is aggression in a nutshell. When I aggressively try to correct a problem that I wrongly see as existing out there in the world (and all fixing, all correcting is ultimately aggression) then what I’m really doing is fighting against myself. I’m creating the problem and then I’m trying very seriously, very humourlessly to find the solution as if it wasn’t me who created the need for a solution in the first place. I’m fighting myself but I haven’t a clue that this is what I’m doing. I think that the ‘problem’ is out there, but actually it’s my own aggression (or my own ‘unconsciousness’) that’s the problem…

 

This is why any amount of thinking about ‘how to be in the world’ is ‘overthinking’! Thinking is good (sometimes) for small tasks, but not for the ‘big task’ (so to speak) of how to be yourself, or how to be in the world. Thought is no good for existential questions, in other words, only down-to-earth practicalities. Thinking is generally appropriate for practical matters but it most certainly has no applicability at all to any challenges of what we might call an ‘existential’ nature! Within this context, thought is simply unwarranted and painfully counterproductive aggression. We assume certain things to be true (without of course ever properly examining them) and then we automatically start trying to control the world on the basis of these unconsciously-made assumptions of ours. We automatically start trying to fix everything on the basis of ‘how we think it should be’. This is what ‘unconscious living’ is all about – it’s all about conflict, it’s all about us projecting our assumptions on everything without seeing that this is what we’re doing.

 

When we’re living this way (i.e. on the basis of thought) then we never see beyond the conflict, we never see beyond the struggle. Our own assumed reality is the only reality we know, the only one we have any awareness of, and so all we ever know of life is this constant fighting, this constant struggling. The only world we ever know is this unhappy ‘battleground’, this ‘conflict-zone’ of us unconsciously trying to impose our own patented form of order on everything (and everyone) we encounter. When the struggle seems to be going our way (which it never really is of course because our patented brand of order is an artificial construct that couldn’t survive a second on its own) we experience pleasure and satisfaction and feel that all is well with the world, and when we see that things aren’t going our way then we experience the reverse of this – we experience pain and frustration, anguish and demoralization and so on – and we feel that things are fundamentally not right with the world.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we’re in the conditioned or unconscious mode of existing in the world then we never see beyond ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘like and dislike’. No other reality exists for us. No reality other than this false ‘polar’ one exists – we actually incapable (when we’re in the conditioned modality) of understanding how there could be any other way of looking at things than the dualist or polar viewpoint that is provided for us by the thinking mind. We completely fail to see that this duality is our own projection that we’re imposing on the world, and as a result we never ever see beyond the ongoing struggle or conflict that is us. By thinking at all (when it comes to this question of ‘how to be in the world’) we isolate ourselves from reality as it is in itself, which is infinitely serene, infinitely profound, infinitely harmonious. As the Buddhist teachings say, ‘the nature of all phenomena is perfectly tranquil’. The world we create for ourselves with our aggression however is not serene, not profound, not harmonious. It is – on the contrary – both utterly shallow and irredeemably conflicted. And just so long as we remain helplessly identified with the tool of thought, as we have already said, this is the only reality we are ever going to know…

 

 

 

 

 

Shrinking The Self

We build ourselves up with our thinking – we are constantly building ourselves up with our thinking, and this is not helpful thing! It doesn’t matter whether our thoughts are of the ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ variety as far as this is concerned; it doesn’t matter because we’re building ourselves up either way!  No matter whether our thoughts might be considered destructive or constructive, helpful or unhelpful, realistic or unrealistic, it’s a positive accumulation. All thought (no matter how we may see it) is an accumulation and that’s not doing us any good at all…

 

Now we might of course say that we want to build ourselves up in a positive way, we might say that this is a good and healthy thing. We probably will say this. We implicitly see a ‘positive accumulation’ as something that will give us a better life; we see having a solid well-defined positive self-image as being an indication of good mental-health. Having a positive (i.e. a confident and empowered) self-image is where we see our happiness lying. Happiness doesn’t come about as a result of an accumulation however, no matter what it might be that we are accumulating. Happiness isn’t synonymous with having a positive self-image; far from being synonymous it is fundamentally incompatible – the two cannot co-exist.

 

It is our simplistic preconception that happiness and fulfilment in life can come about as a result of an accumulation of the right sort of things and this is a preconception that – needless to say – has informed our modern way of living. This assumption it what underlies the whole of our Western consumer society – we are all trying to ‘consume our way to happiness’ as fast as we can! ‘Consume’ equals ‘accumulate’ – we add more and more stuff to the pile and the bigger the pile the better it is. Successful accumulation equals a happy life whilst failure to accumulate means an unhappy life – or at least, that’s what the adverts say!

 

Accumulation occurs on two levels. There is the ‘outer’ accumulation of ‘stuff’ and there is the ‘inner’ accumulation of memories, ideas, beliefs, techniques, theories, models, and so on. The two processes run along side-by-side and we can’t really separate the two – there’s the inner clutter and there’s the outer clutter and both of these stand in the way of our genuine happiness. We all know that clutter isn’t conducive to happiness but somehow we don’t see our thoughts about ourselves and the world as being mere ‘clutter’, which they totally are. Thoughts aren’t the ‘real thing’, after all, they are simply stuff we say about the real thing. They are just our comments. Our thoughts and beliefs are an opaque overlay that covers up reality so that – in the end – all we have left to relate to are our own mental constructs. Or as Alan Watts says, all we have to think about are our own thoughts, which is a process that doesn’t take us anywhere good…

 

There isn’t a ‘beneficial’ type of clutter, as opposed to a ‘harmful’ type. Clutter clogs up the space around us, eventually reducing our mobility (our freedom to move) to zero and then we’re stuck, frozen into a single cramped posture. Clutter chokes our creativity and – eventually – turns us into clutter too. This is easy to see with clutter that exists on the outside but not so easy with regard to our positively constructed idea of our self, our memories and habits, our history… We would be shocked, on the whole, to hear that our ‘accumulation of ourself’ (or the ‘personal narrative’) is nothing more than clutter, nothing more than dead wood and not who we essentially are at all. The accumulation of undigested mental impressions and constructs that surrounds us hems us in and chokes who we really are because who we really are is always new, always fresh – it isn’t a ‘yet another reworking of the old’, even though we are totally convinced that it is.  Our thoughts about ourselves become our mausoleum; or as John Berger says, ‘the past gradually grows around one, like a placenta for the dying’. There is no sort of an accumulation of thoughts or ideas about the world and ourselves that does not put a stranglehold on who we really are, and since happiness can only about as a result of us being ‘who we really are’ (and not as a result of us being mistaken or deluded in this regard) the accumulated or constructed self can never be happy.

 

But if the constructed self can never be happy then why do we have such an unhealthy obsession with it? Why don’t we just ditch it? Why don’t we give up it (as one gives up on a bad thing or a road that doesn’t take us anywhere) and stop putting all our energy into it? If obsessing over the mind-created self and its fortunes doesn’t make us happy then why pursue the matter in the way that we do? Unhappiness – we might say – is an indication that we have wandered away from ourselves, an indication that we have got lost along the way, and yet somehow we never go into this enough to see what it is that we have wandered away from. Instead of paying due attention to the loss of our natural happiness (or ‘inner freedom’) we implicitly treat this issue as somehow not being very important, and substituting other values in place of it, so as to try to ‘make do’ in some way. Instead of going down the road of philosophical enquiry, therefore, we opt for whatever cheap tricks we can come up with to mask the pain that we’re in.

 

Modern society is all about looking for substitutes for genuine happiness! We have – even though we will never admit this to ourselves – given up on happiness and have opted for other ‘commodities’ instead. We have made goals of being secure, being approved of, being in a desirable social / financial situation, having a position of power over others, having a belief structure that we don’t have to question and all these types of things. As John Berger says, we have opted for the good feeling that comes with being ‘envied by others’ even though this is a hollow attainment at best because even if we do play the game well enough to get other people to envy us we can’t help knowing – deep down – that we have nothing worth envying. Deep down – no matter what we say – we know very well that there’s nothing there, that it’s all a sham…

 

As a society, we have all agreed together (whether we know it or not)  to play this hollow game in which we strive as hard as we can to accumulate the theatrical analogues of happiness, the markers or indicators that we say show that we are happy, even though we are not. We have opted for the theatrical analogue of happiness which is the outward appearance of happiness, the outward appearance we agree not to look beyond. The best possible outcome of this game is therefore to have the perfect mask which we are not ever going to be able to look beneath, to see who is actually wearing it. Playing this game actually means that the more successful we are the more miserable we are! This is the paradox involved in chasing theatrical happiness – the better we do at the game the worse off we are. And if we fail at the game, if fail at the very serious task of creating an enviable mask that everyone, including ourselves, can believe in, then we aren’t going to be happy either because we’re going to believe (quite wrongly, as it happens) that we’ve missed out, that we’re not getting our slice of the pie that everyone else is enjoying. This is the great irony that we have made ourselves quite incapable of seeing…

 

The question is however, why would we do this? Why would we actively chase misery in the way that we do? Why would we pursue something that actually precludes us ever being genuinely happy? Why would anyone be so denying of themselves that they would want to do this? One answer is simply to say that we do it because we’re confused – we have confused the mental image that we have of ourselves with who we really are. We have confused the ‘positive self’ (the self that can be defined, and made understandable to ourselves and others) with the negative self, which is the self that is not an object of the rational mind with its cut and dried categories.

 

That’s one way of answering the question that we just posed. Another – parallel – way is to say that we aren’t ‘thinking for ourselves’ (so to speak); we’ve handed over responsibility for living our lives to the theatrical self, the mind-created self, the self which exists purely for the sake of appearances. As a result of this endeavour, we obtain, if we are lucky, the plausible appearance of happiness – a version of happiness that we can both buy ourselves and sell to others. When on the other hand we fail to obtain a version of happiness that convinces both ourselves and others, and not only this but start to gain insight into the fraudulent nature of the whole enterprise, then our peers will say that we are depressed. We will be prescribed medications to correct our abnormally negative way of seeing the world; we will be medically treated for the socially-constructed sickness of ‘seeing through the fraudulent nature of the theatrical self’…

 

 

From the point of view of the theatrical self (the self which is who we’re not, but cannot see that we’re not) happiness never really was a goal anyway. It was never our agenda to be genuinely happy. If happiness only exists for the true self (the self that doesn’t define itself) then what good is it to the theatrical self? Naturally enough therefore, the theatrical self has zero interest in real happiness – if the truth were known it would actually run a mile if it ever came across the genuine article. The theatrical self is mortally afraid of happiness because it knows that happiness is only there when it isn’t! Any time genuine freedom or happiness starts to appear on the horizon the everyday self will start sabotaging as fast as ever it can – it knows on which side its bread is buttered. The reason we never want to give up our neuroses is because these neuroses serve a very important function – they are what keep the theatre of ourselves going.

 

This then is the reason we gravitate towards misery in the way that we do. This is the reason we cling to our unhappiness as stubbornly as we do – it’s because we are letting the theatrical self run the show and it’s only interested in itself. It’s only interested in perpetuating itself, whatever the price; the agenda of the theatrical self is simply to ‘hang in there’…  If we’re feeling good because our self-image has been affirmed by events, or by other people, then this makes us think more because we’re trying to perpetuate the experience, and if we’re feeling bad (as a result of the self-image being disrespected by events or other people) then as everyone knows this makes us think more too – we’re thinking more because we’re trying or correct or ameliorate this insult to the self-image. We’re busy spin-doctoring the narrative. But whatever type of thinking it is that we’re engaged in it only ever adds to our misery; we accumulate more and more causes for suffering as we go along and we can’t help doing this. We accumulate suffering no matter which way we turn; we’re powerless – so it seems – to do anything other than accumulate suffering and the causes or suffering!

 

‘Shrinking the self’ (which is the only way to reduce or free ourselves from suffering) is the one thing that can never be done deliberately, on purpose. This isn’t the obstacle it sounds however because the shrinking of the self-concept is something that happens quite naturally just as soon as we develop an interest in seeing the truth. To see the truth is to see that we are not the self-concept and to see that we are not the self-concept is to stop putting so much of our energy and time into maintaining and promoting that construct. The self-image is very greedy for attention and resources; it is very high maintenance and so as soon as we start to see that its benefit is not our benefit then the dynamics of the situation are going to change all by themselves.  The truth is what frees us, not our perennial machinations; as the well-known verse reads in John 8:32 –

 ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’.

 

As we stop putting so much of our energy into maintaining the theatrical self (or self-image) it starts to shrink – it stops taking up quite so much space and as it stops taking up so much space we become lighter, we become less driven and therefore more playful. This doesn’t mean that the self-construct disappears but rather that we are no longer restricted to just this one (humourless) perspective on things. We can look at the world in more than just the one way. What this means therefore is that we are living life on two levels at once: we’re living life on the basis of the self-image (just the same as we always do) and we’re also living more freely, not from any fixed or determinate basis. The insight that we’re not who or what the thinking mind says we are means that we have more mobility, more flexibility, more freedom. In this new, more essential way of living we are aware (to some extent, at least) that we are not this concrete self but the space around it. We’re aware – sometimes more so, sometimes less so – that we aren’t our thoughts but the elusive gap between them. We’re not the positive or defined self but rather we’re ‘the negative self’ – if we can say that there is such a thing! We’re something far more subtle and hard to get a handle on than that clumsy old ‘concrete self’….

 

This playful awareness arises just as soon as the self-concept gets small enough for us to see around it. This is the unexpected benefit that we receive as a result of letting the self be shrunk by our ‘willingness to see the truth’! This doesn’t mean that we see it as a good idea to have our sense of self shrunk and take steps to bring that about – it’s not that we’re trying to ‘attain some advantage’! If we were, then that ‘advantage’ would be for the self-concept, and so we would be going around in circles. When it comes to it, the self-concept is only ever interested in expanding itself, not shrinking itself. It can never shrink itself, even though it might pretend that this is what it is doing, or that this is what it is interested in doing. But when we find the courage (or curiosity) within us to let reality shrink the self-image, we discover that we have gained something, not lost it. We have gained space, with all that comes with it. ‘Less is more’, as they say!

 

This isn’t a matter of deliberately ‘humbling oneself’ or ‘denying oneself’ – that would only be another strategy, another mental manoeuvre designed to provide us with some sort of advantage in the game. It’s not some manoeuvre that we’re talking about here but simply not taking ourselves so seriously.  It’s not that we have a found a new and highly effective way to improve our situation, but rather that we no longer feel compelled at every turn to keep on ‘playing the game’…

 

 

 

 

The Devaluation Of Consciousness

Consciousness is the least valuable commodity there is – we can sell just about everything else but we can’t sell this! Consciousness is garbage to us; we would not stoop to pick it off the street. It’s worse than garbage actually – consciousness is something that we have put on the banned list, it is something that we make every effort to keep at a safe distance. Consciousness is the uninvited guest at the party who will be thrown out unceremoniously by heavily armed security men if she ever dares to show her face…

 

To say that consciousness is inconvenient to us is of course to put it very mildly indeed! Consciousness is the one thing that is guaranteed to upset every apple-cart. It is guaranteed to throw all of our structures into disarray, and reduce them to rubble in moments. Consciousness destabilizes our structures to the point where they are not able to exist anymore. It falsifies all of the assumptions that our systems rest upon. How then can we possibly value consciousness, given that we are so very heavily invested in all of these structures and systems that we have created? To value consciousness is to value truth and truth is the very last thing we want to know about in this modern world of ours, no matter what we say.

 

It might seem that we live in an enlightened era which exists in stark contrast to earlier times when the human race was ruled by ignorance, prejudice and superstition, but if we think this then we’re looking at things with rose-tinted spectacles. People are not behaving very differently, when it comes down to it. What has happened (and it is admittedly very dramatic) is that we have got a lot better at controlling our physical environment and manipulating whatever we are able to manipulate. We can pull off a lot of tricks and they are quite spectacular. We have become very skilful at carrying out certain technical manoeuvres but if this skilfulness exists without any relationship to actual consciousness, then we’re in big trouble – to put it mildly. When there is no consciousness in the picture (and there isn’t) then things can hardly be expected to work out well…

 

If we have this hugely enhanced ability to manipulate the physical world but at the same time our actual level of awareness hasn’t changed very much (if at all) then we are in heading in one direction only and that is the direction of deceiving ourselves, and then enslaving ourselves with our self-deceptions. It has been said many times that when our cleverness outstrips our wisdom then we’re headed for disaster and how could this be otherwise? We don’t tend to see this because we imagine that technological prowess and understanding is the same thing as wisdom, but this is very far from being the case. The tools might be impressive but the user of the tool most definitely is not; our agenda for using all of the tools that we have access to is not impressive – on the contrary, it is distinctly uninspiring. It’s all pretty squalid. We’re only ever concerned with personal advantage; we’re only ever concerned with promoting the interests of the narrow little group that we’re affiliated with and this allegiance to the self or the group is a symptom of unconsciousness not consciousness.

 

Consciousness has no agenda whilst the rational mind always does. The rational mind cannot not have an agenda and its agenda has nothing to do with becoming conscious. The only way we can become conscious (or ‘globally aware’) is when we drop all of our rational agendas and it can be readily seen that our contemporary rational/technology culture has absolutely interest in doing any such thing. If we have an enhanced ability to control, and we are moreover very much invested in control and the outcome of controlling, then why on earth would we want to relinquish all our agendas? Actually, dropping our agendas turns out to be the very same thing as dropping the rational-conceptual mind and we definitely aren’t about to do this anytime soon! When it comes down to it, we think that we are the rational-conceptual mind and so of course we aren’t about to drop it – that would be the psychological equivalent to suicide. That would be throwing away the thing we hold most precious.

 

This – we might say – is our biggest delusion – the delusion that we are the thinking mind, that we are the same as our thoughts about who we are. As long as this is the case then it goes without saying that we won’t have any genuine interest in becoming conscious. Becoming conscious would mean sacrificing our precious illusions about who we are. Instead, we’re going to be very interested indeed in controlling because we imagine that if we get very good at controlling then we will be able to produce some especially favourable conditions for ourselves. Producing especially advantageous circumstances or conditions for ourselves is our chief interest; it’s just about our only interest. Although we may not necessarily put it quite like this, our Number One Assumption in life is the belief that if we get very good at controlling then this will mean that we will be able to bring about the ultimately beneficial situation for ourselves. Naturally enough, this (thoroughly deluded) thought has an enormous amount of appeal! It’s quite intoxicating…

 

We could hardly get things more wrong, however. We couldn’t get things more wrong – that would be an impossibility! The more we invest in controlling the more deluded we are, and the more trapped by our delusions we are. We are always looking for better and better outcomes and because of the intoxicating lure of ‘improving our situation’ we are constantly being driven to invest more and more of ourselves in cleverness and controlling. We are constantly being driven to invest more and more of ourselves in the rational mind, in other words. The more we invest ourselves in the rational mind however the more alienated from actual reality we become – our viewpoint is getting narrower and narrower the whole time as we focus more and more on the particular details that we are interested in. The more we specialize the less we are aware we are of the indefinable Whole; to know everything (or nearly everything) about one particular set of details at the expense of having any awareness or appreciation of the bigger picture is to be not-conscious. That is to be unconscious and being ‘unconscious’ is very clearly what we as a culture are all about. We’re not about the bigger picture at all – we think that our narrow rational understanding of the world is the bigger picture! We call anything else an illusion…

 

Our assumption is then that the outcome, the special conditions that we will have brought about with our skilful controlling, will be highly beneficial for us, highly advantageous for us. We are on this accounted highly attracted to the goal or outcome that we see in front of us – it exerts a tremendous magnetic effect on our attention. But how can a mind-created illusion (because that’s what it is) possibly be ‘beneficial’ or ‘advantageous’? How can it possibly do us any good? The answer is of course that it can’t do us any good; it will actually do us harm – over-valuing a mind-created illusion is bound to cause us harm because we’re neglecting what matters in favour of what doesn’t matter. Only the Whole can be beneficial, only the Whole can do us any good, but we have no regard for it. We have no regard or respect for the Whole – all we care about is our controlling and what this controlling is supposed to bring about for us. We’re obsessed with our narrow agenda and this agenda is purely toxic.

 

On the face of it, what we value is the desired goal-state, as we have just said; we value the special conditions that are going to be so beneficial to us. If we go deeper into it however we can see that this means we must also value the abstract viewpoint that gives rise to the mirage of the goal (or to which this goal seems so meaningful and so important). Without this narrow, abstracted way of looking at the world the goal means nothing at all. In simple terms – if we value the goal at which we are aiming, and which is exciting us so much, then we also have to value the state of ignorance that gives rise to it. Whether we want to admit it or not, we actually value our own ignorance and so – this being the case – of course we don’t value consciousness.

 

We either have it one way or the other therefore – we can’t have it both ways and the way that we have chosen to have it is to protect and preserve our own ignorance at all costs. The thinking mind can’t operate any other way, strange as it may sound to say this. The thinking mind has to ignore the Whole Picture because if it doesn’t then all its deliberations, all its activities, immediately become entirely meaningless. What ‘goal’, what ‘outcome’, what ‘specially-engineered situation’ can hold a candle to the Whole, after all? The ‘Whole’ we’re talking about here isn’t some kind of metaphysical fancy – it’s what actually exists. It’s the only thing that exists. The part, the fraction, the detail, only seems to exist when we pretend that the Whole isn’t there – this is the game that thought is playing. Reality itself doesn’t not contain any divisions; it does not come with any boundaries or limits.

 

The thinking mind is a jealous god and it doesn’t look kindly upon any extra-curricular activities, anything that doesn’t support the party line, anything that doesn’t have anything to do its all-important goals, anything that doesn’t support it’s all-important agenda. As we read in Saying 47 of the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said: It is not possible for a man to ride two horses or stretch two bows; and it is not possible for a servant to serve two masters, unless he honours the one and insults the other. …

Once we’re in the business of controlling then consciousness goes out of the window straightaway because consciousness is what lies outside of the framework of thought. Consciousness is what doesn’t serve the master of the thinking mind. The engine of thought and all of its devices requires a lot of investment; as we keep saying, this means that anything which has ‘no relevance’ to our viewpoint (i.e. anything that doesn’t fit with our prosaic assumptions) has to be forgotten about. We have no time for it; we have no regard for it. We’re far too busy with the endeavours that the mind sees as important. Yet what we’re forgetting about is Everything because the special goal-state we’re lavishing our attention on isn’t real. It’s not part of ‘Everything’ because it’s a mind-created abstraction. What we think is important is never ‘where it’s happening’ – on the contrary, it’s always where it isn’t happening! There’s nothing more sterile than thought’s creations.

 

We’re always looking in the wrong direction – we’re always looking in a direction that isn’t even a direction. We’re deludely convinced we’re onto something but we’re not. We’re gambling everything on the wrong thing because even if we did win the prize it wouldn’t do us any good. It wouldn’t do us any good because the prize is a mind-created abstraction and so we would have to become a mind-created abstraction too in order to believe in it, in order for it to seem substantial to us. We would have to become a ghost, in other words – we would have to become a ghost whilst still alive. Chasing the glittering images which the mind creates in such abundance means that we have turned our back on reality itself, and what possible good do we expect to come from this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thinking Mind

How can computation, calculation, and data-gathering be the centre of all things; how can the measuring or quantifying mind be the basis for the whole world? And yet it is. There can be no doubt that this is the way things are – all we have to do is to pay careful attention to our day-to-day experience of what it feels like to be us, what it feels like to be a person. What the experience of being a person usually means is that we are always in the middle of a whirlwind of mental activity – evaluating things, judging things, analysing things, categorizing things, quantifying things, thinking about things…

 

We have made computing or calculating (or ‘measuring’) the centre of all things. We have done this without realizing what we have done, without appreciating that this is in any way strange. Whatever happens, we’re in a hurry to measure it, to compare it with the evaluating yardstick of the concept-making mind and see what we make of it. “What is this, what is this, what it this?” the mind is asking all the time. Every time a new datum comes along the mind tries to fit it into its overall picture of reality, to consolidate that picture. All the activity that goes on in the thinking mind is geared towards this end.

 

The questioning that the thinking mind engages in isn’t questioning of a philosophical type – it is on the contrary a pragmatic questioning, a form of questioning that is directed towards consolidating our conceptual ‘grip’ upon the world. We’re not asking open questions with our thinking in other words, but rather what we’re doing is that we’re trying to makes sense of the world within the same narrow framework of understanding that we always use to make sense of things, and this is a different matter entirely. There is no doubt whatsoever that our experience of being in the world is one of being in the centre of this maelstrom of thinking and evaluating – we can hardly pretend otherwise since if this were true then we would be going around in the centre of an oceanic sense of calm and serenity, and how often is this the case? The way things usually are is that we are agitated rather than calm, busy in the head rather than peaceful.

 

The question this raises is “Why?” Why is all this activity going on? Why have we made computation and measuring the centre of all things when it is clearly not necessary that we do so? We don’t need to be thinking about life the whole time, after all – we could just be living it. We don’t need to be analysing and evaluating and second-guessing our situation – we could just be taking it as it comes and enjoying it! Since everything is already perfect at being what it is, what is all this mind-created commotion about? What’s to be gained by it? What are we trying to achieve? What’s behind it all?

 

We have of course already alluded to what the answer to all these questions might be – we’re mentally busy in the way that we are because we’re trying to squeeze everything into a framework when it doesn’t really belong there. All the activity is because we’re trying to make sense of the world so that it makes sense in the way that we want it to. One thing is absolutely for sure and that is that if we were happy for everything to be the way that it already is then we would immediately be in a state of the most wonderful inner peace. Words would not be able to describe how peaceful we would feel – we would be at the centre of a veritable ocean of peacefulness. There would be a quality of serenity such as we are unlikely ever to experience in life. If we did experience it then we would be unlikely to forget it in a hurry…

 

We know that this oceanic sense of serenity and unity with the world comes our way only very rarely therefore – if at all – and so what this shows us is, very clearly, is that we aren’t OK about things being ‘the way that they already are’. Our day-to-day state of mind indicates clearly that we aren’t ‘accepting of things as they are’ but resisting of things as they are. Because we aren’t OK about things be the way that they are we are compelled, instead, to be forever trying to control and manage and regulate them instead. This draws our attention to a very curious thing therefore – how could we be resistant to reality across the board, and only be in favour of it when it meets our special requirements?

 

Even to ask this question is to begin to be aware of what it is that’s going on here. The point (which we have already alluded to) is that our relationship with reality is a controlling one, not a respectful one. If I am in a relationship with you and I am trying to control you (as is often the case in relationships) then I am only going to be happy with you when you do what I want. I’m not happy with you the way you actually are; I’m only happy with you when you’re the way that I want you to be and this is exactly what our relationship with reality is like, whether we like to see it or not.

 

Needless to say, a controlling relationship isn’t any sort of relationship at all, and yet we’re constantly fooling ourselves that it is. We’re constantly fooling ourselves to think that our relationship with reality is an honest and respectful one when this very much isn’t the case. The truth is that we don’t care what reality is in itself – we’re actually frightened to find out – we only care about what we say it is. As long as we have this type of controlling ‘relationship’ with reality we’re never going to be happy; happiness is out of the question, as is peace of mind. Everything is on a strictly conditional footing when we’re in ‘control mode’ – everything is conditional upon how well we do in our controlling. So if our controlling goes well then we’re ‘happy’ but this is only conditional happiness. It’s conditional happiness because it depends upon us getting our own way and what this means is that the so-called ‘happiness’ will turn around at the drop of a hat and become its opposite when things don’t work out according to plan. Satisfaction then turns into dissatisfaction, apparent ‘good’ humour turns sour. Contentment turns into angry frustration, and so on. All conditioned emotions are like this, all are liable to turn around at the drop of a hat, depending on circumstances. There is never any chance of genuine peace or happiness when our relationship with the world is a controlling one, therefore.

 

Peace of mind is alien to the conditioned mentality; it doesn’t belong there – any sense of peace or well-being that might seem to be there can be taken away in an instant and ‘peace that can be taken away in an instant’ isn’t peace! We can fool ourselves that it is, we can tell ourselves that all is well with the world and that the basis of our well-being is as solid as a rock but this just isn’t true. The basis for our sense of well-being is ‘us being successful in our controlling’ and there’s nothing rock solid about this. Our well-being is dependent upon external factors, upon ‘things going a certain way’, and a less reliable basis than this is impossible to imagine. When our sense of well-being is dependent upon successful controlling then, pretty obviously, peace of mind is not going to be the result! This is actually the recipe for anxiety, not peacefulness…

 

The thing that we generally have difficulty in understanding is this assertion that our relationship with reality (or the world) is almost always one of controlling – we don’t see things this way. Obviously we can see that sometimes we are controlling, or trying to control, but we certainly have the perception that this is always the case. This is because we don’t understand that thinking is in its essence all about controlling. Thinking is controlling because it always interprets reality on its own terms. Of course thinking always interprets reality on its own terms – that’s what thinking is. Thinking is the process whereby we subject the world to our rules, to our criteria, in order to it to compel it ‘make sense’. It is so normal for us to do this that we don’t really focus on what we’re doing, but what we’re doing is pulling everything into a framework of reference that we ourselves have decided upon. We’re making sense of things in a way that suits us.

 

If we didn’t think about the world all the time then it wouldn’t look the same at all. Our thoughts don’t exist ‘out there’ in the world, our concepts and ideas and beliefs don’t have an existence of their own – it’s us that make them, it’s us that have put them there. If we didn’t engage in all this mental activity then the picture of reality that we take for granted would wink out of existence immediately, as if it had never existed. This picture of reality – no matter how familiar it might be to us – is a conditioned one. It is conditional upon us making it be there, it is conditional upon the way that we choose to look out at the world.

 

To put this in really simple terms – the simplest possible terms – what we’re trying to do is make something be what it isn’t. This is the big endeavour that we are all engaged upon. Is it any wonder that we are kept so busy at? The bottom line here of course is that we just can’t make something be what it isn’t. That’s just not going to happen, plainly. But what we can do – for a while at least – is make it seem as if we’re getting somewhere, and this illusion will allow us to feel motivated and positive. What we’re actually doing however is that we’re rolling a boulder up a hill – by putting a lot of effort into it we can apparently get somewhere, but the moment we start to slacken it’s all going to go into reverse again. Things are going to start slipping…

 

So straightaway we have two types of activity that are possible, two types of activity that can arise. The first type of activity we can call ‘optimistic’ or ‘hopeful’ activity, the second ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anxious’ activity. ‘Hopeful’ activity is activity is activity that is motivated by the belief that we can roll the boulder up the hill until we reach a point at which it won’t come rolling all the way back down again. This is the outcome that we are working towards, this is the outcome called ‘success’. Anxious activity – needless to say – is still activity where we’re struggling to get that boulder up the hill but we no longer believe that we’re going to be successful at it. This doesn’t mean that we stop trying, it just means that we are now trying on two levels not just the one. We’re fighting to roll the boulder up the hill and we’re also fighting not to see that this can endeavour is never going to work.

 

Both of these are equally strong motivations – when we have our eye on the prize and we’re pressing home for the final advantage this is a strong motivation, and when we’re struggling to avoid missing out on the prize this too is a powerful motivational incentive! But it can be seen all the same that both motivations are also equally illusory – the ‘prize’ that I’m striving for doesn’t exist and because it doesn’t exist neither does the possibility of avoiding the threat of missing out on it. I can’t avoid not attaining the prize because attaining it was never a real possibility in the first place. The prize we’ve got our eyes on is – as we have said – the prize of not having to be working away forever at rolling the boulder up the hill. The prize is when we finally ‘get there’ but this just isn’t going to happen; we’re never going to reach the summit of the mountain in the way that we hope to and the reason we’re never going to be able to do this is self-explanatory – no matter how long and how hard we work away at maintaining a mental construct that construct is never going to grow legs and stand up all by itself!

 

This then explains why there is always so much thinking, so much mental activity going on – it’s because we’re engaged in a job that has no end to it, it’s because we’re engaged in a non-terminating task. We can look at this in two ways – either we can say that we’re struggling to fit everything into our narrow little framework of reference and that this is a NTT, or we can say that we’re struggling to maintain the artificial construct of who we think we are but aren’t, and this is a NTT as well. It all comes down to the same thing in the end because it’s only by looking at the world via our narrow frame of reference (as if it were the only way to look at things) that we can carry on believing in the reality of the self-construct. The bottom line is that mental activity – both conscious and unconscious – is needed on a constant basis. The best we can hope for is that the unconscious mental activity will carry on without us having to be made aware of it and that the conscious mental activity (the day-to-day thinking) will continue to appear entirely volitional and unconnected with the secret task of maintaining the self-construct. This is ‘unconscious living with no visible snags’, so to speak.

 

The worst that can happen, on the other hand, is where we do begin to become aware of what is going on and have to painfully escalate the thinking activity in order to try to cover up the true nature of what is going on, even though this escalation actually draws attention to what is going on all the more. This situation is called ‘neurotic mental illness’ – this is when our comfort zones start to fail us and we begin the slow and painful movement back to reality – however reluctantly. The irony underlying all this of course is that the thing we’re protecting isn’t really worth it. It isn’t really worth it because it isn’t real – what we’re struggling to protect is a knot of tension and struggling and stress which exists purely in order to maintain the fiction of who the thinking mind says we are, and yet who we really are – behind all this struggling and stress – is something far, far greater than we could ever even begin to imagine! We’re protecting the shoddy copy at the expense of the priceless original! This is the true nature of the ‘ironic struggle’ upon which we are perpetually engaged…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There Is No Such Thing As Useful Thinking

There’s no such thing as ‘helpful thinking’ as far as working with neurosis is concerned. There is absolutely no such thing as ‘a way of thinking that can help untangle us from neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving’. This is like saying that there’s ‘no such thing as useful thinking’ when it comes to telling the truth – if we have to think about it then we’re avoiding the truth, not telling it! Neurosis may be defined as the avoidance or attempted avoidance of pain that is legitimately ours (which is to say, pain that actually belongs to us). ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering’, says Jung – it’s what we do instead of suffering. The reason neurosis is recognized as a problem is of course because as time goes on it has a way of becoming more and more painful itself, until it actually reaches the point where it is more painful than the suffering we were originally avoiding! This brings us to the nub of our argument – there is no such thing as useful or helpful thinking when it comes to neurotic patterns of pain avoidance (we may say) because thought itself is a form of pain-avoidance. Thought is therefore not the least bit of good when it comes to not avoiding our legitimate pain!

 

It sounds wrong to say that thought is itself a form of pain-avoidance – can’t thinking be used to solve our problems after all, and isn’t solving problems a way of meeting them head-on instead of running away from them? Isn’t solving problems ‘doing something about it’? Isn’t that a good thing? This is always a good source of confusion – we naturally feel that being proactive and tackling our problems before they can get the better of us is the healthy thing to do, the optimal thing to do, but this is simply not the case when it comes to legitimate pain. If legitimate pain is pain that actually belongs to us then solving this pain – so that it is no longer painful – is simply another form of avoidance. It might be ‘pro-active avoidance’, but its avoidance all the same.  Suppose I feel ashamed because I have done wrong to someone – is this pain that I should try to avoid? Or suppose I am grief-stricken because someone dear to me has died – is there a ‘right way’ to think about my loss to make the suffering I am going through more manageable? Is it by any stretch of the imagination ‘mentally healthy’ if I do find a way to rationalize either my behaviour in the first example or my loss in the second? Very clearly it is not in the least bit ‘healthy’, although we are course unlikely to see this so clearly at the time…

 

It sounds wrong to say that there is no such thing as helpful thinking when it comes to working with mental or emotional pain. Our whole emphasis – as a culture – is on trying to find the right way to think. Our whole emphasis is on managing emotions, managing stress, managing anxiety, and ‘managing’ means thinking about it. ‘Managing’ is all about skills and methods and tools and strategies and so on and all of this is thought. It’s nothing else but thinking. How can there be no such thing as helpful thinking? This amounts to heresy in this control-based culture of ours. But suppose that our problem is that the mind won’t stop thinking? Suppose that the thinking mind is on over-drive, that it is thinking about things too much? Are we to believe that there is some special kind of thinking that we can engage in that will calm the mind and bring a halt to the over-thinking? Are we to believe that by thinking even more than we already are doing we can bring order to this frantic mind of ours? Are we really to believe that thinking can in some mysterious way cure itself?

 

It doesn’t too much reflection on the matter for us to realize that there is something suspect about this assumption, something not-quite-right about this belief. Whatever thoughts we have when we are in an agitated frame of mind are themselves going to be of an ‘agitated nature’. Is it possible for an agitated mind to think a non-agitated thought? Is it possible for a fearful mind to produce a thought that is not fearful, or for an angry mind to engage in thinking that is not angry? Our thoughts are always going to be expressions of the state of mind (or state of consciousness) from which they arose; they certainly can’t be used to somehow ‘reach back’ and change the disturbed state of mind that gave rise to them. That is looking at things backwards. That would be a clear case of the tail wagging the dog!

 

What is needed – if there is to be any clarity – is for there to be actual awareness of the situation. Awareness is the helpful thing, not some specially indicated type of thinking. For me to start thinking about what the right type of thinking would be for the situation I find myself in would simply be compounding my confusion – this is just stirring things up even more. It is as if there is a corrupt police department and I am handing over the process of sorting out the problem to this very same department! Thought cannot cure thought – as professor of theoretical physics David Bohm says, the error in thought is a systematic one, which means that when we try to analyze the problem and then fix it, this very same error gets perpetuated and magnified. Our ‘blind spot’ – which is the blind spot (or entropy) inherent in all thinking – can only ever get bigger and darker than ever when we try to use thought to correct itself.

 

The confusion is only going to start settling when we can very clearly see that there is ‘no such thing as helpful thinking’ when it comes to freeing ourselves from the mess that was caused by our own thinking. Just as soon as we can see that there is no way for us to correct or fix the painful state of mind that we are in as a result of thinking about it then everything will slowly but surely start to settle down. And contrary-wise – if we don’t have this very clear understanding then nothing we do is going to help us. If we can’t see that there is no such thing as helpful thinking then it is guaranteed that everything we do is only ever going to compound our suffering. It is as clear-cut as this.

 

We can’t exit a mental state on purpose – we might very badly want to, but there is simply no way that we can do so. This is a very straightforward point to understand – there’s nothing fancy or intellectual about it at all – and yet in another way it is not so straightforward at all because we are so immensely unwilling to see it. There is no inherent ‘technical difficulty’ in grasping the point – a child could do so – but where there is a difficulty is in our willingness to entertain this possibility, our willingness to look at it. We could see it in a flash if we weren’t so resolutely opposed to seeing it but the whole point is that we are ‘resolutely opposed’ to seeing any such thing. We’d rather tie ourselves up in knots than see it – we do tie ourselves up in knots in preference to seeing this beautifully simple principle. We do this the whole the time, in fact – we do it on a regular basis. Tying ourselves up in knots in order to avoid mental or emotional pain (i.e. neurosis) is a characteristic human behaviour!

 

This immensely stubborn refusal to see that it is perfectly and sublimely impossible for us to change our mental state on purpose, either by our modern rational cleverness or by good old-fashioned forcing, is (of course) an attempt to help ourselves. By refusing to see that we can’t exit a painful mental state on purpose are essentially trying to help ourselves but the irony is that this infinitely obstinate refusal of ours to see something very simple is the cause of very great suffering – our attempt to help ourselves actually back-fires and brings huge suffering and misery down on us, and the more suffering and misery we’re in the more stubborn we get with regard to seeing that we can’t actually escape it. The whole thing is a trap, in other words. It’s an irreversible process – it just keeps on getting worse. We have started off going down this road that promises relief but actually delivers misery, and once we have committed ourselves to going in this direction it become progressively harder to question our original ‘choice’ (not that it was ever what we might call an actual conscious ‘choice’, of course, since the moment in question in all probability came and went far too fast for us to actually be aware of it).

 

Actually, it is the automatic, purely-mechanical attempt to ‘help ourselves’ that keeps us in the painful mental state that we wish to escape from. ‘What we resist, persists’, as Jung says. All of this – of course – makes a lot of sense. How can the automatic fear-driven reflex of wanting to fight against the pain, of trying to push it away or run away from it be expected to genuinely help us? This isn’t really a controversial point. We all know that the reflex attempt to fight or escape can’t help us really – the only reason we buy into it so very quickly is because we are afraid. Going with our innate wisdom exposes us to this fear, whereas ‘automatically going along with the comforting lie’ saves us from it – temporarily, at least! But even though buying into the reflex (and the comforting lie that goes with it) saves us (temporarily) from seeing that ‘we can’t escape from where we actually are’ it doesn’t save us from the pain of the neurotic torment that we are plunged into as a result of our automatic resistance to ‘what is’. Going along with the pain-avoidance reflex doesn’t save us from neurotic pain, it creates it.

 

‘Neurotic torment’ doesn’t necessarily have to seem like torment, not at first, anyway. It may seem just like normal, everyday life. Normal everyday life is a form of reality avoidance, after all – it’s a comfort-zone’. The comfort-zone of normal everyday has two components to it, we might say – one is the ‘comfort’ component (which we like, obviously) and the other is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’. All neurotic escapes start out with comfort, obviously – escaping from what we fear is by definition comfort and so when we automatically resist the reality that we don’t like, that we are afraid of, the first thing we feel is comfort. This ‘comfort’ is comfort because it is exactly what we wanted – it is like sweet honey to us and this honey is the lure that the neurotic trap is baited with. The sweetness of the relief from pain or fear is the ‘reinforcing mechanism’ for the behaviour; or as we could also say, it is the element in the mix that causes us to become addicted to the pain-avoidance routine.

 

The snag is that the place we’ve escaped to isn’t as great as it initially looks –  it isn’t actually great at all. It looked very good to us in the first instance because it represented ‘escape’ but if we had looked into the matter any deeper (which we didn’t, and don’t) then we’d see that we have been sold a dud. It is a ‘dud reality’ because it is completely sterile, completely lacking in any creative possibilities. Saying that the place which we have rashly escaped to is ‘completely lacking in any creative possibilities’ is just another way of saying that we can’t actually live there; there’s nothing there for us in the comfort zone – it’s like a bare prison cell. We can ‘hide out’ there, we can ‘pass the time’ there, but we can’t do any actual living there and that is why we have said that the other side of ‘comfort’ is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’.

 

Every time we automatically escape from a reality that we don’t want to be in we enter this cycle of ‘relief followed by boredom and despair’ and this unvarying cycle is what we have been referring to as ‘neurotic torment’. It is tormenting to be going around and around in circles, without ever getting anywhere new. There is never anything else other than this same cycle over and over again and nothing is ever going to change. And what’s more, just as long as we’re in ‘escape mode’ it is only ever going to get worse because (as we have already pointed out) the more ‘rebound pain’ we incur as a result of our automatic avoidance the more strongly the ‘reflex to escape’ kicks in. We try harder and harder to escape and the resultant ‘rebound pain’ increases proportionately…

 

If on the other hand we were to go with our ‘innate wisdom’ rather than ‘the automatic reflex to escape’ then we wouldn’t be drawing the endless horrors of neurotic torment upon ourselves. Innate wisdom doesn’t do this kind of thing – only unconsciousness does! If we were to be aware of what we are doing when we try to exit a painful mental state then we wouldn’t invest in the project so much, we wouldn’t place so much hope in it. We’d still be caught up in the reflex (because that’s the nature of reflexes) but the difference would be that we wouldn’t be ‘buying into it’ so much. What helps us, therefore (really helps us that is, rather than just ‘pretending to help us’) is to stay conscious of what’s going on – staying conscious of what’s going on simply means is that we don’t ‘hand over’ our awareness to the mechanical reflex. We don’t give away our responsibility to ‘the machine of avoidance’ which is our fear-driven thinking.

 

As we have said, it is fear that causes us to buy into the comforting lie that ‘the automatic escape reflex will help us’ – we’re actually believing something that is clearly dumb, clearly nonsensical but our fear pushes us into believing it because there is comfort there. Believing the comforting lie is the ‘easy option’. What helps therefore is to notice ourselves doing this – we pay gentle non-judgemental attention to ourselves ‘buying into the lie’ and as a result of this gentle non-judgemental awareness we see that the lie is a lie. And once we see that the lie is a lie then we can’t buy into it any more – not to the extent that we once did anyway. We will continue to have the tendency to go with the reflex, and ‘hope that it will save us’, but alongside this habitual / mechanical side of our nature there will be something else, something new in the mix – there will be the ally of our own ‘innate wisdom’, which fear was previously causing us to ignore…

 

 

 

 

Thought Is A Salesman

Thought is a salesman wearing a flash shirt and a cheesy smile. Thought is a salesman and what he is trying to sell us is security.

 

Thought always tries to sell us security – that’s all it ever does, over and over again. Thought keeps on selling and we keep on buying!

 

There is a problem with this, though. There is when it comes down to it a very big problem with this arrangement and that is that security (which is the product that is being sold) doesn’t exist.  We could say therefore that thought isn’t so much ‘a salesman’ as it is a conman.

 

What thought is busy selling us the whole time simply doesn’t exist. ‘Security’ – in the psychological sense of the word – doesn’t exist. When we say ‘security’ what we mean is ‘absolute validation for the arbitrary position we have taken in life’. As soon as we express it like this we can see where the problem comes from – what we’re (implicitly) asking for is a contradiction in terms.

 

We don’t of course express what it is we want as clearly as this and so the stark contradiction is never visible to us. The self-contradictory nature of what we are asking for isn’t visible to us and so we keep on asking for it – we keep on asking for it, yearning for it, and yet at the same time we can never have it.

 

We don’t know that what we are asking for is for our arbitrary position (or standpoint) to be absolutely and unreservedly validated for us by the universe. We don’t – in all honesty – see that this is what we are asking for. We have no understanding at all of what it is we are actually requiring in our automatic desire for ontological security. All we know (and this somewhat dimly) is that we are feeling painfully insecure and we want this painful feeling to go away and leave us in peace.

 

This requirement of ours for ontological security isn’t something that we have carefully thought out (or even thought out at all) – it’s simply an automatic response to the unsettling feeling that we are dimly or not-so-dimly aware deep down in the core of our being. This uncomfortable or unsettling feeling is niggling away at us, it is gnawing away viciously at our vitals (so to speak) and our way of running away from it is by looking for external validation.

 

This is of course where thought comes in. thought comes in – as we have said – by offering us this external validation. It offers us ways of getting what we so badly want. This is not to say that thought (or the thinking process) is bad or wrong n any way, simply that it causes no end of suffering and confusion for us when we use it in a way that it was never really ‘supposed’ to be used (so to speak). When we let thought perform a function that it is not legitimately able to perform, then this is when all our troubles begin…

 

The ‘correct’ usage of thought – so to speak – is when we use it to fix legitimate problems in the external world, the physical world around us. There are of course many times in the day when such ‘legitimate’ problems may arise. What to cook for dinner might be one example; how to find the quickest route from A to B in a city with which we are unfamiliar might be another. Locating my mislaid mobile phone or set of keys is another. All such ‘technical’ matters are legitimate problems for the thinking mind to be solving.

 

Alongside all these legitimate problems there is however one huge illegitimate problem and this is where all the trouble comes from. The ‘illegitimate problem’ is that we want to fix the world so that it can provide us with the sense of security about things that we so badly want (even if we aren’t necessarily acknowledging that this is the case). The illegitimate problem is the existential pain that we’re in, in other words. We want to find the remedy for the ontological insecurity that we’re experiencing but not admitting to experiencing and this is the illegitimate problem, the problem that isn’t really a ‘problem’ because it can’t ever be fixed. It isn’t a problem at all – it’s simply reality!

 

Very often when we think we’re trying to fix purely technical issues what we’re unconsciously trying to fix is this underlying ontological insecurity. We may think that the reason we’re trying to attain X, Y or Z is what we say it is, but this is really just a smokescreen. We’re wanting something else really – something that we can’t ever have! When we are trying to solve insoluble problems (that aren’t really problems at all therefore) under the guise of solving regular or legitimate issues then this brings huge stress and anxiety down on our heads and we don’t know why. This is of course what we refer to as ‘neurosis’ or ‘neurotic fixing’.

 

Our trouble – as we have already suggested – is that we seem to be functionally incapable of seeing the root cause of all of this neurotic suffering. It’s not just that we seem to be functionally incapable in this regard, we actually are incapable. We’re incapable of seeing what the root cause of our insecurity is just as long as we’re operating on the basis of the rational mind. The reason for this is that it is the rational mind (and the fact that we are identified so solidly with its constructs) which is responsible for the insecurity we’re suffering from. The thinking mind is the cause of all the trouble, not the solution!

 

Why – we might ask – is the thinking mind the cause of our ‘unfixable insecurity’? The very simple answer to this question is that the thinking mind is always ‘insecure’ in itself because it presents a view of the world to us which is very far from being the whole picture whilst at the same time implicitly making the claim that this is view is exclusively (or ‘exhaustively’) true. A false claim is being made therefore and it is naturally quite impossible to make a false claim without on some level being fundamentally insecure about what is being claimed! We may compensate for our insecurity by being aggressively assertive and overtly sure of ourselves but this aggression does not make our insecurity any less!

 

A classic example of this sort of thing is dogmatism – when I am being dogmatic I am not any the less insecure for being so overtly confident in my assertions. On the contrary, my insecurity is visibly manifesting itself in the form of my aggression, inflexibility and obstinacy, all the characteristics we associate with dogmatism. We could say that our aggression and inflexibility is our way of compensating for our insecurity (and this is of course perfectly true) but it is also true that our aggression, our forcefulness, our rigidity is our insecurity, made plain for everyone to see. To be certain of something is to be insecure!

 

The self partakes fully in thought’s fundamental insecurity. How can it not when it is a construct of thought? What makes the self the self is the certainty it embodies – the self is ‘this but not that’. ‘This-but-not-that’ is the very essence of what it means to be the self. But if the self is this unyielding dogmatic assertion that I am ‘this but not that’ (as it is) then this straightway makes it heir to a fundamental, irreducible, irresolvable anxiety. The self equals ‘identification with a boundary that doesn’t exist’ (except according to itself) and this means that it is always going to be afflicted with the demon of insecurity, the demon of ‘secretly (or not so secretly) doubting what it itself proclaims so loudly’…

 

Saying that thought is a salesman is not quite the full story, therefore. Thought is a salesman and it is always trying to sell us little ‘sound-bytes of security’ in this quintessentially uncertain world but it is also the author of this insecurity at the same time. In this, thought is just like Duff Beer in The Simpsons, which is the cure and the cause of our woes at one and the same time. Thought (or rather ‘the unwise use of thought’) creates the problem at the same time as promising to fix it so that the more we depend on thought to shore us up and make us feel (however temporarily) OK, the more prone to anxiety and insecurity we become…

 

We’re really just going around in circles because if thought (which is fundamentally insecure in itself, as we have argued) is responsible for creating our idea of ourselves, our understanding or ourselves, our reassuringly concrete sense of ourselves, then how can we use thought in order to remedy the insecurity that thought is itself the cause of? We’re using thought to correct the problems that arise from (unwisely) using thought and this is causing us to spin. This spinning is being created by thought, is being aggravated by thought, is being perpetuated by thought, so when the next thought comes along fresh off the assembly line and offers us some kind of plausible ‘quick-fix’, some kind of ‘failsafe remedy’, are we going to believe it?