The Path Of Error

When we force ourselves to do what we were going to do anyway – without any forcing – then we take the good out of it. We ourselves take the good out of it, no one else. The reason we force ourselves to do whatever it is that we were going to do anyway is because that way we get to avoid any risk, avoid any uncertainty. We’re afraid of taking the risk that we might not do it, and so we force ourselves. We take matters into our own hands, and this is ‘the way of error’.


Out of the avoidance of risk (or out of the avoidance of uncertainty) comes ‘evil’, in other words. Out of the avoidance of risk – when it is psychological risk that we’re talking of – comes a long, long road of suffering. The Via Erratum isn’t ‘an error’ because we have broken any rule, or because we have rebelled against the proper authorities (and have wilfully gone against the way that was preordained for us), it’s ‘an error’ simply because it leads us into suffering. We could also say that the Via Erratum is ‘an error’ because it’s a dead end, because it simply doesn’t get us anywhere. Eventually we’re going to realise this and so then we are going to have to come all the way back again. We will have to come ‘right back to Square One’…


When we force ourselves to live our lives (because we think we have to, because we think it’s the right thing to do, because we think it’s our ‘duty’, or because we are afraid of what might happen if we don’t) then this takes the good out of it. This takes all the creativity, sensitivity and joy out of it. This inevitably takes all the humour and poetry out of life and so what are we left with then? This is Alan Watts’ central message, the message that he reiterated in many different ways – “a life which is forced, a life which is conducted deliberately or on purpose, is a life not worth living”. What a terrible mistake this is to make! What could be more precious than life, and what could be more tragic than to utterly corrupt and despoil this gift – for no good reason at all?


This is the error that we all make, every last one of us. No matter where you look you will always see people making this error; there is no shortage whatsoever of people making this error. To ‘do as others do’ is to make this error. Society itself demands that we go down this road – it tells us every day that the right thing to do is to live life deliberately, on purpose, in strict accordance with our rational intention. It is through the purposeful activities of the Concrete Identity that we will find meaning and joy in our lives, so we are told. This key message is beamed out at us a thousand times a day, out of a hundred different media outlets – just in case we are a bit slow in picking it up. And yet the purposeful activities of the concrete identity are quite, quite worthless. They lead to nothing but suffering and frustration. They are suffering, pure and simple.


As we have said, there couldn’t be a bigger mistake than the mistake of ‘living life deliberately’, living life ‘on purpose’, and gravitating ceaselessly thereby towards our mind-created goals. There couldn’t be a bigger error than ‘the error of believing life to be nothing more than the fulfilment of the Concrete Identity’s agenda’! The fulfilment of the Concrete Identity’s agenda doesn’t bring us any joy; this isn’t life – it isn’t anything! The realisation of our goals isn’t life, life is when we realise that our goals don’t actually matter! Life is the falsification of our ideas about life. The person who does nothing other than chase after goals the whole time isn’t living, they are simply obsessing and obsessions are – by their very nature – always sterile. There is nothing more sterile than obsession; there is nothing more sterile than obsession because obsession is always all about the Concrete Identity and the key point to understand about the Concrete Identity is that it doesn’t actually exist.


‘What’s your problem?’ Wei Wu Wei asks, ‘Mistaken identity’ he replies. The Concrete Identity is obliged to force itself to do everything and when once we go down this road of forcing then that’s it – there’s no turning back. There’s no turning back because forcing is now the only thing we understand and so if we stop forcing ourselves then nothing will happen. We have become dependent upon control in other words and so we have to keep on controlling even though controlling everything is nothing but neurosis. Forcing is suffering and yet forcing is all we know – we have to see it through to the bitter end, therefore. ‘Forcing’ is the only card we have to play and the terrible thing about this is that no good can ever come of it, not matter how far we push it…





Art: Tyranny RPG









Going Beyond Methods


What is happening in meditation is that we are going beyond the method, going beyond the procedural side of things. So – we might quite reasonably ask – what does it mean to be going beyond the method, beyond the procedural side of things? How does this work? What does it involve? To ‘go beyond the method’ is also to ‘go beyond the map’ however and so we’re not actually going to get any answers to these questions! It is very natural for us to wonder what it involves to go beyond the method, to go beyond the map, but we can’t really expect any satisfactory answers. Or rather, we can expect an answer alright -no problem about that – but the point here is that we’re just not going to get one!


We can’t really expect an answer when we ask “What’s beyond the map?” because if we were to receive an answer then this answer would itself constitute a map! Going beyond the map or beyond the method is to go beyond any possibility of saying anything. We are no longer in the ‘consensus reality’ that for most of us constitutes the only reality we know. We’re no longer in the consensus reality because no one can tell us either what this so-called ‘beyond’ is or how to get there, and if no one can tell us what it is or how to get there then we’re very much on our own. We’re ‘thrown back on our own resources’…


Whilst it is very much true that there’s nothing wrong with being on our own in this way, being thrown back on our own resources in this way, it is also true that we are very much not used to it! This is a challenge and the thing about a challenge is that we need some kind of a ‘muscle’ to respond to it. If we don’t have the muscle – or rather if we don’t know that we have it – then we start to panic. The challenge is there but we have no way of dealing with it, no way of responding to it – it is as if the only way of responding we have is to ‘cave in’ to it. It may be true that we do have the muscle there somewhere but that’s no good to us because we neither know where it is nor how to use it…


So the first thing is to actually know that we have the muscle there and the second thing is to exercise it, to get it to a little bit of work so that it might gradually start to grow stronger. This sounds like a method in itself – we could call it a ‘Two-Step’ method and try to market it – but if we thought it was a method we would be wrong. It isn’t a method for the simple reason that no one can tell us how to find the muscle and even if we did find it no one could tell us how to go about using it. We keep coming back to this – people can tell us a certain amount but we always come to this ‘jumping off’ point where we have to do it ourselves. We always reach that point at which we have to leave behind the comfortable camaraderie of the consensus reality (the ‘group mind’, so to speak, and all it’s advice) and go it alone.


This is a lot like ‘bringing a horse to water’ – we can bring the horse to water without any major problems (which is the ‘procedural bit’) but then the horse has to drink for itself, without any external direction, and this is quite another matter. There’s no ‘procedure’, no ‘method’ for making the horse drink, in other words. So the bit of the practice where we sign up for the meditation class, where we get ourselves to the meditation room and sit ourselves down on the stool or cushion, is a procedure. The bit of the practice where we follow the basic instructions of following the breath, of bringing the attention back to the breath each time we get distracted is a procedure. But none of this is meditation – this is only the preliminary. This is only the ‘jumping-off point’. We have brought the horse to the water but now it has to drink…


So, within the terms of this metaphor, what does it mean when we talking about ‘the horse drinking’? What does this actually involve? These are the questions that we want to have clarified. It automatically happens that we want to ask for ‘descriptions and prescriptions’ regarding the process of what is happening in meditation but there are none forthcoming for what we’re talking about here. There are as we have said no descriptions of what happens when we leave the jumping-off point, nor prescriptions for how we should go about doing this. ‘The horse drinking’ means that we are moving beyond methods, moving beyond procedures, moving beyond planning and purposefulness and no one can tell us how to do this. Naturally enough, no one can tell us how to go beyond following instructions! We can’t even tell ourselves this. We can’t plan for how to go beyond planning; we can’t set the goal of moving beyond goals…


The procedure of ‘coming gently back to the breath every time we get distracted’ is of course very easy to describe, and also very easy to make a prescription of. It is also relatively easy to follow, under most circumstances. This however is not meditation! The reason following the instructions for ‘following the breath and coming back again every time we notice that we have been distracted’ is not meditation is because precisely because we are following the instructions for how to do it, precisely because we are following a procedure. A ‘procedure’ is something that we can direct ourselves to do – in this case I am directing myself to pay attention to the breath as it leaves and comes into the body, and then come back again to paying attention when I notice that I have been distracted, when I notice that I have been side-tracked into thoughts and led astray. This is all well and good and it is the procedural basis for meditation without being meditation itself.  It isn’t meditation because there’s still a controller; it isn’t meditation because meditation isn’t where we direct ourselves (or tell ourselves) to do this, that or the other. Meditation isn’t ‘a following of the rules’ or ‘a following of the method’ – it is as we have been saying a going beyond the rules, a going beyond the method. Meditation – as Krishnamurti says – is

a movement in and of the unknown…


In the state of meditation there is no controller and no controlled, which is in complete contrast to our normal ‘directed’ mode of consciousness. There is no one there issuing instructions or directives as to what should be happening next, what the attention should be attending to next, and so on. If this were the case then the attention (or the ‘awareness’) would be the slave of the rational mind, the slave of the rational mind’s purposes or game-plan, and the state of having one’s awareness enslaved in this way isn’t meditation!


That enslaved state is just the ‘mechanical modality of being’ – the machine-mode of existence on which basis we live most of our life. In meditation there is no one directing the attention, no one telling it where to go or what to do next, no one telling it how it should be. That doesn’t mean that nothing is happening, however!” Our inbuilt prejudice is to image that unless there is a controller issuing instructions then nothing will ever happen. Without the red-faced sergeant barking out orders on the parade ground there is only going to be unruly chaos. Nothing productive, nothing worthwhile is ever going to happen. This is very much what the rational mind believes – that nothing worthwhile will happen without its say-so, without its explicit instructions or guidance. This is why the thinking mind’s essential nature is that of a tyrant, or a boss who doesn’t trust anyone enough to delegate responsibility. The thinking mind has serious trust issues, in other words!


The ‘back-to-front’ thing about this however is that who we actually are is the spark of awareness, not the dead mechanical system that is guiding it, controlling it. We’re the consciousness, not the Sat Nav! The system of thought is saying that the consciousness which is who we really are can’t be trusted, can’t be allowed to ‘run free’ and do its own thing. That would be a disaster, it tells us. The mechanical system which is who we aren’t can’t trust the spark of awareness which is who we are! This is like a slave-owner who says that his slaves would never amount to anything without him telling them what to do, without him motivating them (coercing them!) every step of the way. This – very clearly – is no more than a self-serving lie! The slaves may not do what the slave-owner wants them to do anymore, but that is a different matter entire. The slave-owner’s goals only matter to him, after all – they don’t have any wider significance. The point is not really that the slaves won’t do anything if they are freed from coercion, but that they will no longer do what the slave-driver wants them to do!


The spontaneous self is far more, unimaginably more, infinitely more than who (or what) we are when we are being controlled every inch of the way by the rational mind, when we are no more than the slaves of its dead mechanical purposes. To be the slaves of a whole bunch of mechanical purposes is to be no more than those purposes, and the purposes are nothing at all unless they serve something higher than themselves. When these ‘mechanical purposes’ consume us there is very little of our true spontaneous nature left in evidence – we become stereotypical stressed-out humourless emotionally-repressed adults. Who – we might ask – is more truly who we are – the humourless emotionally-repressed adult or the free spirit we started off as being, all those years ago? Clearly the spontaneous self or free spirit is so much more us than the person we are when we are controlled by the thinking, but somehow we end up getting used to being controlled or regulated by our own thoughts, our own ideas and beliefs. It becomes very normal for us. Anything else becomes frightening, anything else becomes very threatening…


The snag here is of course that we have identified with the rational mind. The prisoner has identified with the jailer, which is the Stockholm Syndrome taken to the nth degree. We don’t have any life any more – we have given the life that we had to the conditioned self, and the conditioned self is not of itself alive (being no more than a glorified reflex). The mechanical shell which is the ‘reflex-self’ is who we think we are, and so what it ‘wants’ becomes what we want. When we can see things like this (i.e. in terms of consciousness identifying itself with the rational mind or conditioned self) then this clarifies our situation hugely. We started off perceiving ourselves to be the ‘controller’ who directs the attention back to the breath every time we get distracted by thought. We perceive ourselves to be ‘doing’ the meditation, in other words – if someone were to ask me what I was doing then I would answer, “I am meditating”. This situation however – as we have been saying – is not meditation. It has nothing to do with meditation! As Wei Wu Wei says,

As long as there is a ‘you’ doing or not-doing,
thinking or not-thinking,
‘meditating’ or ‘not-meditating’
you are no closer to home
than the day you were born.


All methods cause us to identify with the controller. As Wei Wu Wei also says –

All methods require a doer. The only ‘doer’ is the I-Concept.


All methods belong to the I-Concept and wherever the I-Concept is there can be no peace…


Wherever there is a method there is the I-concept, therefore. Generally speaking, we think that methods are great – we can’t have enough of them! It’s methods, methods, methods as far as our modern rational culture is concerned. We have methods coming out of our ears. We eat them for breakfast, lunch and tea. Our love affair with methods is our love affair with the I-concept, however. Our love affair with methods is our love affair with the controller; our thinking here is ‘what’s good for the I-concept is good for us’! Actually, our modern way of life is all about the controller, all about the I-concept. The world we have adapted ourselves to is purely for the benefit of the I-concept, not for our benefit. This world has been designed by the I-concept, commissioned by the I-concept, instigated by the I-concept. It is managed and policed by the I-concept. It is the I-concept’s standards we have to live up to!


As long as we are identifying with the I-concept, the controller, everything in this world seems fine, everything makes sense. But by the same token just as soon as we stop identifying with the mind-created phantom which is the conditioned self the way of life that we are so proud of is revealed as being little more than a concentration camp for the spirit. Consciousness – which is who we are – is being persecuted on all sides. Everything serves the unreal self-image and we insist on identifying with this imposter. Consciousness herself has been kept in captivity and used for the benefit of the abstract self-image so long that this seems like the normal way for things to be. We know no other way. Our suffering is as a result very great – whether we know this to be the case or not – and the one thing we don’t need is yet more methods to help ‘manage’ this suffering.


Symbolically speaking, we may point to the story of St George and the dragon. Consciousness – we may say – is the fair maiden held captive by the fearsome fire-breathing dragon and the dragon in question is none other than the thinking / controlling mind. When it comes to the heroic task of freeing the maiden therefore this is not to be done according to a method. Methods are the dragon – St George is not an extension of the rational ego!






No Dancer


In the non-dual tradition it is said that there is no dancer, only the dance. There is no singer, only the song. There is no ‘one who loves’, there is only love…


Or as we could also say, then we finally get the joke we realize that there is no one there to get the joke! In Israel Regardie’s words, when the magician attains to the summit, he discovers that the one who started the journey is no longer there. From a grammatical point of view, we could say that there no nouns or adjectives, only verbs. Or we could say, there is no subject and no object, only what Wei Wu Wei calls non-dual subjectivity.


Saying something like ‘there is no dancer, only the dance’ (or ‘there is no doer, only the doer’) sounds profoundly baffling from the point of view of the thinking mind (which is of course the ‘dualistic’ point of view). We have problems with it. To say that we have problems with it is putting it mildly – if there is no doer doing my life, enacting my life, living my life (when the whole point of all my actions / thoughts is to benefit this imagined doer) then this takes the wind out of our sails in a big way! Who am I doing everything for if there isn’t a doer? Why am I striving to achieve this goal and that goal if there’s no one to enjoy them when they are achieved? Why am I always busy making plans if there’s no one there to enjoy the fruits of these plans? And so on…


So in one way this is very perplexing. It’s so perplexing that we simply can’t take it on board. As we have said, the point behind (almost) all of our thinking, (almost) all of our doing, is to benefit the thinker, to benefit the doer. This seems so obvious that we really just can’t question it. To question this would be to question everything! Being aware of the unreality of the thinker, the unreality of the doer (even if we were willing to agree that this is a possibility worthy of discussion, which we generally aren’t) would straightaway make everything we think and do entirely meaningless.


The basic non-dualistic premise of the nonexistence of the doer is not necessarily such an alien concept as all that however. If we come right out and say that ‘there is no doer who does the doing’ then this seems too radical to take on board, too radical to consider, but it is possible to reframe this basic premise in terms of engagement and present it in a way that makes perfectly good sense – intuitive sense if not rational sense. There are two ways about engagement, as we all know very well: we can either engage or not engage. We’re free to go either way – it’s not that that one way is better than the other, it’s not that we ought to engage rather than not-engage, it’s simply that there are these two possibilities. The two (apparent) possibilities that we are faced with in life are ‘to engage or not engage’!


We all know what it means to engage with life. If we engage in something then that means that we enter into it fully – we don’t hold back. Whatever it is, we give ourselves to it without reservation. We give it everything we’ve got. We go right into it – we go right into it so much that we don’t even notice that we have gone right into it. This is the whole thing about engagement – if we are engaged then we aren’t looking at ourselves from the outside seeing that we are engaged. If I am dancing I don’t look at myself dancing or think about myself dancing. I don’t monitor myself to see how well I am dancing – if this is the case then there is no dance! Or if I am playing music in an engaged way then I do not reflect on myself playing the instrument; I don’t know how or why I am playing the music – I just play it. There is a profound type of ‘letting go’ that takes place…


In terms of creativity generally (in whatever form that takes) we can say that if I am entering wholly into the flow of the creative process then I don’t reflect on the fact that I am being creative; I don’t objectively observe the fact that I am being creative (or work out how I am being creative), but rather I lose myself in it. ‘Engagement’ means that I completely lose myself in the flow of creativity, it means that I’m no longer there!


So immediately we can grasp the point that wholehearted engagement in whatever we are doing means that there is no one doing it. There is no separate doer. Engagement means precisely that there is no doer, no author of the action – if there is ‘a doer’, if there is ‘an author of the action,’ then this is non-engagement!


Non-engagement doesn’t mean that I don’t do stuff – it just means that I do stuff in a non-engaged way! I look at my doing ‘from the outside’. I monitor my doing, I evaluate my doing, I regulate my doing, I measure my doing. I think about my doing, in other words. It’s not just that I am reflecting upon my doing – everything I do takes place within a framework that has been established by thought. Everything I do has been organized by thought, commissioned by thought, set in motion by thought. My actions – the entire pattern of my life – is a reflection of my thinking, an enactment of my thinking. My purposeful behavioural output (which is to say, the life I lead on purpose) isn’t just guided by thought, it is thought. It is ‘thought made concrete’; it is ‘thought acted out into the word’ and this isn’t engagement because the whole point about thought is that it is in its very nature fundamentally non-engaged!


When I think about life (instead of simply living it) then this is what we are calling ‘non-engagement’. I think about what I am going to do before I do it and so I never do anything that ISN’T an enactment of my thinking. I have ideas about myself and the world and when I act on the basis of these ideas, these beliefs then this is ‘non-engagement’. The thing about non-engagement is that I am always on the outside of life looking in! I’m peering in through the living room window. I’m watching my life on a TV screen! I’ve dissociated: I’ve turned myself into a mere ‘mental object’. Somehow I have managed to separate myself from reality and turn myself into a mere picture or image on the VDU screen of the conceptual mind!


We might quite reasonably ask what possible advantage there could be in this manoeuvre, seeing as how it doesn’t seem like a particularly pleasant or wholesome thing to do. Why would I want to turn everything into a mental object or image that can be held at arm’s length and rationally examined? Why on earth would I want life to be something that is happening outside of me? Why create this ‘mental distance’, this separation, this irresolvable fragmentation / alienation that comes with objectification?


The answer is of course staring us right in the face. The ‘advantage’ that we gain as a result of taking up this fundamentally alienated or dissociated position with regard to life (and any position we take with regard to life is going to be an alienated one) is that we get to feel that we are the doer. We get to feel that we – in some way – are doing life, that we are the decider (or controller) of what happens. We get to feel that we are the ‘responsible agent’, so to speak; we get to feel that it’s ‘all down to us’ – one way or another. I’m the unabridged author of all my rational decisions – I’m the guy in the driver’s seat. I’m the one steering. I’m the one who has the job of pulling the levers and pressing the buttons as and when required…


When we talk about having ‘made bad decisions’ (so that we are now in an unfortunate position rather than a fortunate one) it is this key idea of authorship, this key idea of agency that we are basing our statements on. The perception that I am sitting there in the driver’s seat, deciding what happens and what doesn’t happen, getting to be in control, is a double-edged sword: on the one hand there is the great feeling of pleasure / satisfaction / gratification that I get when I get things to go the way I wanted them to, and on the other hand there is the flip-side of this euphoria which happens when I don’t succeed in controlling successfully. There are the punishing dysphoric feelings of dissatisfaction, displeasure, dismay and dejection that come when I don’t get things to go my way.


Between feeling satisfied, gratified, validated, vindicated, and so on when we ‘win’ to feeling dissatisfied, de-validated, blamed, downcast, dejected and despairing when we ‘lose’ lies the whole of human life! Or rather it is – as we should qualify – the whole of ‘human life as it is lived from the point of view of the dissociated or disengaged abstract self’. Everything is strung out between these two poles – everything is either measured in terms of how well or of how badly we’re doing. It’s all pluses and minuses and all of these pluses and minuses refer to the framework of thinking that is assumed by the static or abstract self. All of these pluses and minus are the static framework in fact – the static framework expresses itself in terms of pluses and minuses. No matter where we go, just so long as we are identified with this defined self we can never ‘leave the framework’.


The life of the abstracted everyday self cannot ever ‘depart from the map’ of these particular mental states, pleasantly euphoric on the one side and unpleasantly dysphoric on the other. These euphoric / dysphoric mental states are the abstract self! Just like a coin, the abstract mind-created self has two faces: the pleased face of euphoria and the displeased face of dysphoria. From the very constrained viewpoint of the everyday self (if it were somehow to be confronted with the fact) this would not necessarily seem to be a bad thing because we always assume that we can ‘win instead of lose’. We always imagine that we can – if we are careful enough or clever enough (or lucky enough) steer our boat into the safe waters of the positive, enjoyable mind-states and keep well away from the choppy, shark-filled seas of the dysphoric ones. We think that we can collect ‘a bag full of pluses rather than minuses’ in other words. We think that we can (if we make sure to get it right instead of wrong) get a whole load of ticks on our ledger instead of crosses.


This assumption or belief is however what we might call ‘the defining delusion of the conditioned self’. We have to have this particular delusion or else we couldn’t go on with the game! But in reality – as we have already suggested – the life of the disconnected or abstract self is made up of equal portions of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, gratification and annoyance, validation and devalidation, elation and despair. That’s the territory. The very fact that I am able under the right conditions to feel pleased means that I am equally able (under what I will see as the ‘wrong’ conditions) to feel displeased. To take the extreme example – it is not possible to have the state of exultant triumph without at the same time setting oneself up for the complementary state of despairing defeat. The everyday self is equally both of these states – and all the various shades and gradations that lie in-between – for all that it can’t see it…


So we can set up this situation (or ‘way of being’) in which it is possible to enjoy the rewarding mental states, yet in setting this up we have at the same time unwittingly created the situation in which we are fair game for all the complementary punishing mental states. In order to obtain the rewards of the euphoric mind state all that is needed is a highly restricted, highly constrained, highly curtailed way of looking at the world in which some outcomes are seen as ‘favourable’ and others ‘unfavourable’. This highly restricted, highly constrained, highly curtailed (or ‘highly biased’) viewpoint is the one that belongs to the everyday self, which is only a function or artefact of the abstract framework that is assumed by the system of thought. As a result of narrowing ourselves down this much (i.e. as a result of the manoeuvre whereby we disengage ourselves from the ongoing flow of life) we enter into a world of interminable suffering, therefore.


It is the promise of being the recipient of all these deliciously rewarding feelings (the sweet, sweet nectar of euphoria) that sucks us into the game and as a result of our very restricted viewpoint (the very same narrow viewpoint that allows us to enjoy the euphoria) we cannot see that the rewards which we covet so much always come with an equal and opposite punishment in tow. Every plus comes with a minus. Even the good times are bad, when it comes right down to it. Even the satisfying / pleasing states of mind are suffering really because they are only pleasing or satisfying from the limited (i.e. conditioned) point of view which is not who we are at all. Or to put this another way, the feelings of security, satisfaction, validation, vindication, etc. that we prize so much (the conditioned states of mind which are for us the ultimate commodity) only mean so much, only mean what they do mean to a self which doesn’t actually exist. All conditioned states of mind are suffering really because they are all states of alienation from who we really are! As Wei Wu We says in Ask The Awakened –

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.

From the point of view taken for granted by thought (which is as we have been saying a static, ‘abstracted’ kind of a thing) statements like are bound to sound very negative. When the mind-created idea or image of ourselves takes itself – as it has to – to be the centre of everything, the underlying reason for everything we think and do then the uncompromising assertion that this self (this ‘me’) doesn’t actually exist comes as the worst news we could ever receive. To say that this particular bit of news is ‘disappointing’ or ‘dismaying’ or ‘depressing’ for the everyday self is to rather understate the matter!


But who we are isn’t the mind-created vantage point known as ‘the self’. We aren’t that disengaged static onlooker. We aren’t the measurer or evaluator or adjudicator of all that happens around us. Who we are is the flow of creativity which is inseparable from the universe itself. We aren’t the isolated dancer, we are the dance.






Valuing Our Vulnerability

Kuan Yin

Emotional ‘shutting down’ (or closing off’) is something that happens automatically – it’s a reflex, a mechanical response. The complementary process of ‘opening up’ – on the other hand – happens spontaneously. What this means is that we can’t open up again on purpose, just because we want to, just because we think that it is the right or helpful thing to do. This is like a snail retreating into its shell in the face of danger – the retreating will occur by reflex, but once the snail has retreated there is no way to push it or force it or trick it to come out again! Naturally enough, any sort of forcing will simply have the opposite effect and make the snail even slower to eventually re-emerge. The only thing that works is patience and gentleness. It takes as long as it takes, in other words!


‘Shutting down’ occurs as a result of us trying to become less vulnerable. This is so to speak the ‘default mechanical process’ in life – we are subjected to emotional pain, we get hurt, and so we tend to shut down (or ‘harden up’) so as to avoid the pain of this happening again. The logic is that if we are emotionally shut down – to whatever extent – then we won’t feel the pain so much. Perhaps, we might hope, we won’t even feel it at all! The process of growing up and becoming adults corresponds to a large degree with the process of becoming more defended, more withdrawn from the possibility of being emotionally hurt, more secure in our ‘personality armour’. As adults, we generally manage to develop tough hides for ourselves, and as a result we better able to survive in the aggressive, competitive world that we have created for ourselves. Being aggressive and unfeeling is – needless to say – much more of an advantage for us than being gentle and sensitive and the inevitable logical conclusion of this adaptive process of emotionally shutting down is that we become more and more narcissistic and more and more closed-off to (or disinterested in) anything that doesn’t have an immediate bearing our own well-being. Closing down causes us to be like machines, just getting on with our own business, accepting whatever way of life we are given, not looking at the bigger picture, and this makes living in our mechanical society a lot easier.


If being emotionally closed down helps our chances of succeeding in the outside world it certainly doesn’t do us any favours with regard to how we are on ‘the inside’. It doesn’t do our mental health any good. Success (or sometimes simply survival) is obtained at a high price – eventually – if we go down this road far enough – we lose touch with who we really are underneath it all. We lose touch with our true nature, which is compassionate and sensitive, not aggressive and unfeeling, as our acquired generic personality-armour is. Losing touch with who we really are is a pretty big price to pay by anyone’s standards – if I lose who I actually am underneath it all then who has benefited from this successful adaptation? Who’s the winner if the authentic self is no longer there? What happens in this case is that the ‘personality-armour’ runs around all by itself, without anyone on the inside. I become ‘an outside without an inside’. I become a bundle of reflexes and hard-wired survival strategies with no heart since my heart (my core) is the sensitive and compassionate part of myself, the part that I have had to jettison in order to get on in the world…

This is of course an old story. What we’re talking about is ‘selling our birth right for a mess of pottage’. Or as we read in Matthew 16:26 –

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?

Nothing in psychology is new, much as we might think that our situation is different now to that of previous ages. As has often been said, it is only the superficial trappings that have changed – the same challenges, the same human dramas emerge time and time again. The psyche remains the same. And the lessons that life teaches us are the same. The primary challenge in life – we might say – is the challenge to stay true to ourselves in the face of everything that goes on in the world. On the one hand we have the pressure of a competitive, aggressive, image-based society which demands that we be a certain way in order to fit in, and on the other hand we have the personal traumas that we go through, particularly in childhood, that cause us to emotionally withdraw, to emotionally shut down, to survive in any way we can. Either way, our own defences (our own survival strategies) are going to end up causing us a whole new chapter of suffering, which is the suffering of being disconnected from life itself. This is the whole thing about ‘becoming invulnerable’ – what we are in our core is pure vulnerability (i.e. pure sensitivity) and so when we shut the door to ourselves, we shut the door to who we really are. Alternatively, we could say that when we make ourselves insensitive (desensitized) from the pain and the ugliness of life, we make ourselves insensitive to everything else in life too. And the pain of being cut off from life, cut off from our sensitive core, turns out – in the long run – to be the worst pain of all.


As we have already said, ‘closing down’ (and becoming as a result ‘invulnerable’) happens automatically, and once it has happened there is nothing we can do to deliberately reverse it. This means that there is no way to remedy our situation by any deliberate, rational strategy – even though this what we always try to do. We can’t trick or coercive or bribe the snail to come back out of its shell! There is no such thing as strategy or method for ‘increasing our vulnerability’ – all strategies, techniques, methods, etc., exist for the purpose of decreasing our vulnerability not increasing it. If I’m using a strategy it’s because I want to be more in control and if I’m ‘more in control’ then I’m less vulnerable. We can’t pressurize ourselves not to ‘shut down’ because pressurizing (or ‘forcing’) always makes us shut down more. This means that our normal/habitual mode of ‘dealing with stuff’ is of no use to us. It is not just ‘of no use to us’, it is counterproductive. It works against us. It has the opposite effect to the one we wanted. What helps is not trying to control or manoeuvre or pressurize ourselves so that we ‘become the way we want ourselves to be’, but to cultivate sensitivity and gentleness so that that we can relate to ourselves as we actually are.


It could be said that there are two side of our nature – the ‘purposeful’ or ‘rational’ side, the side that is in control (or wants to be in control) and the side that is spontaneous, playful and ‘child-like’. The purposeful side of us is the invulnerable side (or at least it proceeds on the basis of always trying to minimize its vulnerability!) whilst the spontaneous side doesn’t act with the agenda of minimizing its vulnerability – it doesn’t act with any agenda, which is why we can say that it is spontaneous! The purposeful / rational side of us is always trying to seek advantage in everything it does, whilst the spontaneous aspect of ourselves is not seeing the world narrowly on the basis of loss or gain, advantage or disadvantage, good or bad, right or wrong. The spontaneous self is not aggressive, in other words. It’s not a manipulator.


As we have indicated, what very much tends to happen in life as we grow up and move away from the ‘child-like’ side of our nature (this movement being of course perfectly natural) is that the other (invulnerability-seeking) aspect of ourselves ‘takes over completely’ and chokes the spontaneous side. This process happens quite automatically and as we have said we don’t usually notice it happening. This is what Wei Wu Wei is saying here in this quote from Ask the Awakened

As busy little bees, gathering honey here and there, and adding it to their stock in their hive, we are wasting our time, and worse, for we are building up that very persona whose illusory existence stands between our phenomenal selves and the truth of what we are, and which is what the urge in us is seeking.

The psychological urge to seek security and avoid risk/ uncertainty in life is both extremely powerful and extremely persuasive, whilst the spontaneous self (which is the heart of who we are) is not demanding and aggressively assertive in the way that the purposeful self is. It is therefore very easily forgotten about. We listen to the loud voice not the quiet one. We pay attention to the noisy, clamorous purposeful self and neglect its quieter, gentler companion! We feed it in preference just as a blackbird or starling will feed a baby cuckoo in preference to its own. And of course the thing that happens in the case of the cuckoo is that the real offspring gets thrown out of the nest entirely. It gets evicted, and the imposter is given all the privileges…


This neglect precisely what happens to us in the process of ‘growing up – the true self gets forgotten about, gets turfed unceremoniously out of the nest. It gets ditched. We never even notice that it is gone because we have a substitute to keep us busy. Or rather, we don’t notice for a long time – until the pain of living on the basis of who we’re not’ (rather than ‘who we are’) comes so much to the foreground that we start to realize that something is not right. When this happens we can’t help seeing that something is not right. Lavishing all our attention on the purposeful-rational self is therefore the root of neurotic suffering, and the ‘cure’ is simply to get back in touch with who we are. The snag here however is as we have said that this cannot be done on purpose, using methods and control. This is a real dilemma – we can’t get back in touch with ourselves on purpose’ and yet the other side of ourselves – the spontaneous, creative, intuitive, humorous, compassionate side, is the side that we have lost! That’s the side we threw out!


The question is therefore, how do we get back in touch with the sensitive (non-aggressive) side of our nature? How can we become non-aggressive, without being aggressive about it? How can we learn to relinquish control? The thread that is provided for us to follow is – of course – our own pain! If there is pain then there is sensitivity – how could there be pain there if there was no sensitivity? The sensitivity actually is the pain we are experiencing, when it comes down to it, and so the problem here is that we are forever trying to get away from our own sensitivity (which is our own true nature). Our automatic response is to run away from it, to build barriers. Even if the barriers are continuously crumbling or disintegrating, we are still working away at reinstating them. This is what is happening in anxiety. This is where insight comes in – once we have the deep understanding that what we are fighting against is our sensitivity and that our sensitivity is our own essential nature, then some of the automatic energy goes out of this fight, out of this bitter struggle, and we find that we start to relate to our pain in a less violent or aggressive way. Being sensitive to our own pain (instead or dismissing or disowning it as we would normally do) is how the Thirteenth Century Persian poet Rumi says we cultivate compassion –

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

In Tibetan Buddhism relating with tenderness to our own inner pain is also seen as a key practice in ‘recovering oneself’; in the following passage Pema Chodron explains this practice in terms of cultivating bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is also equated, in part, with compassion—our ability to feel the pain that we share with others. Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions of all kinds: anger, craving, indifference, jealousy and envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot—our innate ability to love and to care about things—is like a crack in these walls we erect. It’s a natural opening in the barriers we create when we’re afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta.
An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.

The very thing that we are fighting against is the thing that will help us therefore. The pain which we are automatically (and violently) rejecting is actually inseparable from our own true nature, and so in closing off to it we are closing off to ourselves. That’s the only place the help can come from. Being invulnerable creates second order pain and we react to this pain by closing down (or attempting to close down) still further. If we could do this then we would, and we would not feel the pain, but the very fact that we can’t manage to close the pain down is our life-line since this is our connection with the core of who we are, which had become lost to us. Naturally we don’t want to cultivate this connection – if my essential nature is pain then why would I want to have the connection to it? This is the logic that leads us to run away, to shut down. But the dilemma is always the same – when the pain of being shut down becomes worse, more unbearable, than the pain we were originally shutting down to, what do we do then?


This of course seems like a cruel and very unwelcome dilemma to find ourselves in, but at the same time it is the healing process at work (the healing process being that process by which we recover the Wholeness of ourselves). As Rumi says,

The cure for the pain is in the pain.

Eventually, if we go along gently with the process of healing (instead of fighting it tooth and nail), we find ourselves opening up again instead of closing down, and when we open up in the face of pain we come to discover something we couldn’t ever have imagined. This might be likened to the blooming of a strangely beautiful and entirely unexpected flower, under the most adverse conditions. In Rumi’s words,

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

This is a very curious thing. The strange and beautiful flower we are talking about does not bloom under normal conditions. It blooms under adversity. As long as we are absorbing all our values from the social system that we’re born into there will be no flowering of our true nature. There will be no flowering of wisdom and compassion. That doesn’t come from adapting to society and living as we are expected to live, but only from deep within ourselves. From a mechanical tree comes nothing but mechanical fruit. To expect otherwise would be like expecting an assembly line in a factory to produce something different, to produce something quirky and unique. No matter what it may claim to the contrary, the social system wants us to shut us down – it wants us to be narcissistic and uninterested in the bigger picture. In a word, it wants us to be ‘asleep’. The flower of compassion, wisdom and love blooms under difficult conditions, not under the sleep-inducing conditions that are provided for us by contemporary culture. The generic culture gives rise to the generic self, and the generic self is the denial of who we truly are.
From an alchemical point of view, it could be said that ‘the more severely we are tested, the purer the metal that is formed in the crucible’. The starting-off point of the alchemical work of self-transformation is to be found in those parts of ourselves which we most want to reject, as Paul Levi says –

The elusive prima materia needs to be found before the opus could begin. Psychologically speaking, the mysterious prima materia re-presents, and is to be discovered in, the parts of the psyche that we deny, dis-own and marginalize, the aspects of ourselves that we feel ashamed of, revulsion for and turn away from in disgust. In Jung’s words, this “means that the thing which we think the least of, that part of ourselves which we repress perhaps the most, or which we despise, is just the part which contains the mystery.” We typically want to get rid of the shadow aspects of our personality, but the alchemists understood that our wounded, inferior and unconscious parts aren’t an accident or error, but rather, has a value and cosmic perfection to them that is stunning. Our wounds, the base material of the work, are indispensable for the accomplishment of the opus, for without these shadow parts there would be no way to make the alchemical gold.

It is of course true that very few of us would chose to walk this most difficult of paths ourselves, but if we happen to find ourselves on it (and there is nothing we can do about it), would we not welcome the message of the ancient wisdom teachings that have helped human beings throughout the ages, and which is so very different from the message that contemporary culture gives us?



If we were to ask what the key characteristic of the process (or flow) of life was, one answer would be “the lack of any me, the lack of any defined self or identity”. This is actually a tautological answer since we are really only restating the question all over again in slightly different words. All we are really saying here is that the key characteristic of a flow is the lack of stasis in that flow, the lack of ‘staying still’ in that flow. This isn’t any sort of an answer at all therefore, but at the same time it’s the best answer that we’re ever going to get!


Inasmuch as we are alive we are always going to be part of the flow of life. We can’t really avoid that, even though it might seem to us as if we can. Our true nature, which can never be taken away from us, is this flow which has no defining characteristics other than being a flow. At the same time it also true that we don’t generally know ourselves to be this flow. How can we, if we see ourselves to be this ‘me’, this ‘defined identity’? To see ourselves as being this me, this defined identity, is to be in denial of the flow. This is how it works. This is the only way it can work. This is the only way a static picture can be a static picture, by being in denial of the ongoing flux. Were the static picture (or form) not to be in denial of the flow, then it would straightaway dissolve back into that flow. It would be lost forever in the flow like a raindrop falling into the ocean.


Stating matters like this allows us to clearly see what we might call the essentially ‘oppositional nature’ of our ordinary situation, which is to say, the way in which we live our lives in denial of what life truly is, in denial of who we really are. As we have suggested, we very rarely experience ourselves as ‘the flow’ – on the contrary, we experience ourselves as being ‘the static form’, we experience ourselves as being the viewpoint of the unchanging ‘me’ that carries on from moment to moment in a remarkably constant (or consistent) fashion. The oppositional nature of our situation derives from the fact that we can’t play it both ways – i.e. we can’t be ‘in the flow’ and yet at the same time experience ourselves to be this unchanging ‘me’. If we are experiencing ourselves to be this clear-cut, invariant identity, then this necessarily means that we are in denial of the flow, which has no me in it, and – contrariwise – if we are in the flow (if we are aware of being the same as this flow) then this means that we can’t help seeing that there is no me, that there is no defined identity.
Living life as the defined identity, the constant me, brings its own problems with it, to put it mildly. This is the default viewpoint, but it is also the ‘suffering-producing’ viewpoint. When we abstract a static picture, a static form, from the ongoing flow (which is the same sort of thing as taking a snapshot of a fast-running mountain stream) then we are substituting a two-dimensional appearance for the living reality. We are saying that the hollow appearance is the genuine reality. We are creating – as Wei Wu Wei indicates – a world that is made up entirely of outer surfaces, an exteriorized world that is made up of outsides without any insides. This is after all what the thinking mind deals in; this is all the thinking mind can deal in – static pictures, definite statements regarding ‘how things are’. Everything gets slotted into some fixed category or other. Everything gets seen in terms of equilibria – goal-posts that we are forever aiming at, fixed states of being that we are forever trying to approximate. There is a ‘fixed framework’, in other words, and we have to accommodate or adapt ourselves to it as best we can…


How well we see ourselves as doing in life is thus measured in terms of how good we are at fitting in to this given framework. How well we are doing is measured in terms of many ‘goals we can score’, in terms of how well we can approximate these fixed states. When we make ‘how things are’ be equal to ‘how we would like things to be’ then we call this success and success is the thing we are constantly straining for. Success is what counts – success is the only thing that counts. And yet this ‘success’ that we are constantly trying to achieve (and which we are mortally afraid of not achieving) is actually a state of being abstracted from reality, a state of being removed from reality. We are struggling to escape from the flow of life, and this is what we call ‘success’.


We only want to be what we can think of being, in other words, and yet ‘what we can think of being’ is necessarily unreal since it is a static description of a non-static reality. On the one hand we have the fixed outcome that we are so single-mindedly trying to achieve, and on the other hand we have the one who is busy struggling to achieve the fixed outcome, the one who hopes very much to achieve it, the one who will feel great satisfaction upon achieving it. But both of these are abstractions creating by the thinking process. Actually, both ‘the goal’ and ‘the one who strives to realize the goal’ are the very same abstraction, seen from different sides.


If there is a goal, then there must be the one who is to achieve it; if there is an advantageous situation, then there must be one to who this advantage accrues. ‘Winning’ and ‘the one who wins’ cannot be separated – how can we have one without the other? Is there winning without a winner, or a winner without winning? Both the player of the game and the station of being an accredited or proven winner in that game are constructs of that game, artefacts of that game. Or if we may put this another way, both the one who seeks to obtain the goal and the goal that is to be obtained are concepts (or categories) of the thinking mind.


To be abstracted from the groundless flux (i.e. to be removed from the ongoing dynamic flow of life) is to be, as Colin Wilson says, “A thing in a world of things”. You look in the mirror and you see yourself as an object looking back at you. You are trapped in the objectified state. You see yourself as an object adrift in a world made up of other objects – this is what our situation always looks like from the point of view of the rational mind. The rational mind has no other way at its disposal to see the world – its modality of functioning is to break everything up into isolated (or bounded) objects, objects whose nature is to exist ‘out there’ as fundamentally separate entities. This isn’t really true – it’s just the view that the thinking mind creates for us, the picture that it presents us with. It is nevertheless the way we believe the world to be when we take the view presented to us by the thinking mind as being ‘objectively true’. This is an ironic term itself – the very notion that there could be something called ‘objective truth’ is an artefact or construct of the thinking mind! This is its own assumption…


Seeing this compartmentalized view of reality as being actually true (as being a final or authoritative statement of ‘the way things are’) means that we are living in a degraded form of existence. To be a thing in a world of things is a degraded form of existence. To believe that the world consists of a collection of isolated objects (corresponding neatly to our categories, to our unexamined mental compartments) is a degraded form of existence. This business is a degraded form of existence because the living heart of everything (the interconnectedness of it all) has been amputated, has been removed. When we live the ‘rational’ life therefore we’re living life without a heart, we’re living heartlessly!


If we were to reconnect with the heart of everything (which is a possibility that doesn’t make any sense to the rational mind) then we would no longer believe ourselves to be a thing living in a world of things. We would no longer see the world as being made up of lots and lots of fundamentally separate objects. The divisions that we superimpose on the world come out of our thinking, out of the assumptions we need to make if we are to engage in thinking. The ‘interconnectedness’ that joins up all of these supposed things, on the other hand, was there all along – we didn’t invent it, we didn’t ‘make it be there’. We could say that it is the interconnectedness (rather than the apparent world of separate things) that is the ‘objective reality’, only it isn’t right to say this either because the non-dual world is not actually ‘objective’.


For there to be objectivity there must be separate objects and for there to be separate objects there must be hard-and-fast boundaries and when we see the world without thinking about the world (without conceptually processing the world) then we see that there are no boundaries. There is no ‘divide’.


The possibility of there being ‘an objectively true’ view of the world depends on there being a subject/object split – it depends upon there being a mental compartment called ‘self’ and a mental compartment called ‘other’. It depends upon a thing called ‘me’ and an aggregate of things all lumped together as ‘the rest of the world’. These two polar constructs are not – as we have said – two different things – they are the very same thing. Both ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are products of the framework that is being used to make sense of the world. They are products of the ‘divide’. The self and its objects both equal, in other words, ‘the everyday thinking mind’.


When we see things as they really are, then there are no more things! Or as we could also say, when we see things as they really are, then there is no more ‘me’. There’s no me and no things for the me to construct itself in relation to. Or as we could also say, instead of the static self and its multitudinous objects (which are its unrecognized projections) there is only the flow…

No Method

Cumulus Clouds  602691

Mindfulness is said to be various things. Often it is spoken of as a ‘life-enhancing skill’, or in terms of a ‘tool’ that we can use to help manage stress or anxiety or anger. This tends to sound pretty good – who doesn’t want to learn a ‘life-enhancing skill’? Who doesn’t want an extra tool under their belt to help manage difficult mental states? This actually sounds pretty great – it’s a product that markets itself! The thing is – however – that this way of talking about mindfulness is subtly deceptive, subtly distorting. Mindfulness isn’t a life-enhancing skill at all. If it was this would make it just like any other life-enhancing skill that we might hear of. That would make it just one more product in a world full of products. It becomes just another accessory, just another app for your phone.


When we label mindfulness in this way it sounds as if we are valuing it, as if we are saying something good about it, but really we’re ‘de-potentiating’ it. We’re neutralizing it. We’re turning it into something mediocre, something generic. Mindfulness isn’t a skill (or ability) and it isn’t a tool. It isn’t a technical accomplishment either, for all that we tend to think of it in this way. It isn’t just another thing that we can learn to do, it isn’t just one more box to tick. What mindfulness is really is something which is at the same time very much simpler, and very much harder to comprehend. Mindfulness is what G.I. Gurdjieff calls remembering ourselves! Mindfulness is noticing that we are actually here. It is ‘waking up’ out of our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. Or we could say that mindfulness is remembering something that we – in all our busyness – have quite forgotten. Mindfulness is remembering who we are actually are …


This puts a rather different perspective on things. In what way is ‘remembering who we actually are’ a skill? If it is a skill, then who has the skill? Who learns the skill and who practices it? If we say that being mindful is the same thing as ‘being conscious’, then does this make ‘being conscious’ a skill? And if we say that it is, then who practices the skill of being conscious? If I’m not conscious (i.e. if I’m not present, if I don’t remember myself) then why would I want to practice it? Why would it even occur to me? If I don’t remember myself then how am I going to remember to ‘practice’ being here?


What’s happening when we categorize mindfulness (or mediation) as a skill, as some kind of ‘add on’ or ‘accessory’, is that we are ‘inverting’ it whilst at the same time concealing the fact that we are doing so. We’re putting the cart in front of the horse in a big way! We appear to be valuing mindfulness but actually we are only valuing it insofar as it can benefit the one who is to utilize the mindfulness. This is not an obvious point. What – we might ask – is the difference between valuing mindfulness and valuing the one who is to practice (or utilize) the mindfulness? Why can’t we just say that mindfulness is valuable because it benefits the one who is to practice the mindfulness? What’s the distinction? Surely both come down to the same thing?


In this view – which is the view which we are almost bound to take – it is ‘the self’ who is to benefit from practicing mindfulness. This is precisely why it is valuable – because it is of benefit to the self. How obvious is this? The only thing is, however, that this isn’t how it works at all! This is quite the wrong idea about mindfulness! If I think that practicing mindfulness is going to benefit my ‘self’ then I am very much mistaken. If I think that practicing mindfulness is in any way going to enhance or augment my everyday sense of ‘who I am’ then I have got the wrong end of the stick entirely. Mindfulness isn’t another tool in the service of the self. It isn’t any sort of a ‘tool’ at all, no matter what we might like to think. It’s not there to prop up the status quo.


The reason we like the notion of ‘skills and ‘tools’ so much is of course because having them enhances us – they are extra ‘muscle’ for us, extra leverage. The more skills and tools we have available to us the more amour, the more ‘fire power’ we have in the face of difficulties. What the everyday ‘sense of self’ values above all else (no matter what we might like to believe) is the ability to control, the ability to ensue that everything goes the way it wants it to go. Any skills or tools that we acquire therefore are valued by us because they represent an extension or amplification of our ability to get things to be the way we want them to be. But the point we are missing here – in a truly dramatic fashion – is that mindfulness is not going to do this for us at all!


Mindfulness – of course – isn’t about being able to control better. It isn’t about getting more effective at attaining our targets, our goals. It isn’t about helping us to consolidate our position (or ‘dig in more securely’). It isn’t about helping us to get things to be the way we think they ought to be but rather it is about finding the courage (or interest) to see them the way they actually are! In order to see reality in an unbiased or un-slanted way we need both courage and some genuine, honest-to-goodness curiosity about life because what we will see when we see things ‘as they really are’ is for sure not going to confirm what we’d like to see, what we’d like to be the case. Our likes are the same thing as our biases and so seeing the world in an unbiased or un-slanted way is pretty much guaranteed to show us stuff that we don’t like.


What we’re actually going to observe – if we find the courage to see things straight, in an undistorted way – is that the world doesn’t agree with our biases, with our beliefs about how it should be. Reality doesn’t humour us in other words – we humour ourselves! We arrange for ourselves to see the world that we are predisposed to seeing, and then we hide all traces of us having done so. As David Bohm says, “Thought creates the world and then hides and says it didn’t do it“. Practicing awareness shows us the previously hidden activity of the thinking mind, and how it arbitrarily creates black-and-white realities for us. On another level, we could say that if we find the courage to see things straight, in an undistorted or unprejudiced way, then what we see is that we have forgotten who we really are! What we see is that ‘who we think we are’ isn’t who we really are. What we see when we disengage from the thinking mind is that we are existing pretty much as pure mechanical reflex, pure automatic self-validating habit, with very little in the way of genuine presence there at all…


What I see as a result of practicing mindfulness is that the comfortably reassuring picture of myself that I am expecting to have confirmed (or consolidated) for me doesn’t actually exist. In Buddhism this is called the truth of annatta, or ‘selflessness’. What I see is that I am existing as a bundle of self-validating conditioned reflexes, and that this bundle of conditioned reflexes isn’t who I am at all. In one way this is of course profoundly liberating because there is zero freedom in existing as a bundle of conditioned reflexes, but in another way it is a disagreeable thing for me to see because I am so identified with these reflexes, these habitual ways of seeing the world. I am so very used to assuming that this bundle of reflexes (or ‘rules’) is ‘who I am’, and this assumption provides me with a huge amount of ontological security.


So it can be seen that mindfulness is in no way going to be useful or beneficial to me when I understand myself to be this bundle of habits, this bundle of reflexes. I want to rely on this ‘conditioned identity’ as being true, as being ‘who I really am’, and mindful self-observation is going to show me the opposite of this. Far from allowing me to consolidate my established position, mindfulness is going to thoroughly undermine it! Cultivating the light of awareness of awareness isn’t in any way going to benefit the arbitrary fiction that I am this bunch of conditioned reflexes. Quite the reverse is true because mechanical reflexes lose their power when we allow the light of unprejudiced awareness to fall on them. G.I. Gurdjieff says that the everyday self – and the unconscious mental processes that prop it up – is like a type of chemical reaction which can only proceed in the dark. Shine some light on the matter and the reactions just can’t continue!


To speak of mindfulness as if it were a skill or strategy that belongs to this ‘bundle of reflexes’ which is the conditioned self is therefore highly absurd, to say the least! The everyday or conditioned self, as it makes its way through each day, invariably runs into certain sorts of problems, which it seeks to solve the best it can. This is mechanical or ‘unconscious’ life. The notion of ‘a problem’ is a funny one however – presupposed in the notion of ‘a problem’ is the idea that whatever we are trying to do (whatever it is that we are trying to achieve) is of paramount importance. This is how ‘goal-orientated thinking’ works – the goal becomes of primary importance. This is why any sort of obstacle or opposition to what we are doing annoys us so much, or worries us so much. If we assume (as we do in goal-orientated thinking) that the goal is of paramount importance then the other side of this assumption is that anything that stands in our way is automatically ‘wrong’, or automatically ‘bad’. It is simply something to be eliminated – it is simply ‘a problem to be solved’. Goal-orientated thinking is closed thinking, therefore.


Clearly goal-orientated thinking has its place. If the goal is important in a practical sort of a way then it isn’t helpful for me to be put off or distracted by the very first difficulty that comes along. I wouldn’t survive long if this where the case. I would become too inefficient to ever get anything done. I’d set off to do something (buy some shopping, perhaps) and something would come up and I’d get totally deflected. I’d forget about the task at hand and everyone would go hungry! But aside from this purely practical importance (which we’re not arguing about) there is a kind of way in which the purely practical importance of my goal (if indeed there is any) can be hijacked by something that we are not at all aware of. This scenario might sound on the face of it rather odd, or rather unlikely, but actually it happens all the time. We are very prone to over-valuing the importance of our goals – just as we are very prone to over-valuing the importance of our failures!


What happens in practice, in the general run of things, is that our goals take on a significance that goes beyond the strictly practical, that goes beyond the actual ‘stated reason’ for the goal. When this happens then any problem that comes up automatically starts to assume more importance than it should do; the problem in question ‘looms larger’ than is should do – it starts to bug us more than it should do, it starts to worry us more than it should do. The problem takes on a weight that really belongs somewhere else, somewhere ‘out of sight’. My problems run into each other: the immediate problem becomes every problem I’ve ever had; the immediate issue serves as a flagship for all issues. What is happening here therefore is that ‘solving the problem’ becomes important to me not because of what the problem is, but because of what it represents. The particular problem I am getting to grips with has become what we might call ‘a universal surrogate problem’!


In general terms, we can say that the ‘problem’ represents a threat to the integrity of the conditioned self, a threat to the continued existence of the ‘self-concept’, whilst at the same time the solution to the problem represents the augmentation or enhancement of the self-concept. Essentially, my will has been thwarted and this doesn’t feel good – I don’t get my own way and as a result I start to feel annoyed or slighted or undermined in some way, I take the problem as a personal affront – a kind of an insult. Skills and tools thus represent – as we have been saying – the means by which the insecure self-concept can protect and consolidate itself. When I hear of some new skill, some highly effective new technique, this is why it sounds good to me! It certainly doesn’t sound good to me because I think that this might be a way by which I can throw light on the ways which I have of ‘pulling the wool over my own eyes’ so that I don’t have to see any uncomfortable truth! How’s that going to sound good to me? How’s that ever going to be attractive to me?


Fixing problems feels good to us because when we can fix a problem this makes us feel more secure in ourselves, more ‘unassailable’ in ourselves. It makes us feel that we are in position of power rather than a position of vulnerability. We could also say that fixing problems feels good to us because when we successful fix a problem, however small, however insignificant, we can allow ourselves to imagine that we are fixing the unacknowledged problem of our underlying insecurity. This is the problem that we really want to fix, but which we can’t allow ourselves to see that we want to fix. Being able to control effectively is a compensatory mechanism with regard to our unacknowledged insecurity, in other words. It is as if when I fix a problem, I am fixing everything that has ever gone wrong for, everything that has ever held us back, everything that has ever made me feel bad. The type of thing we are talking about here is sometimes called ‘pseudo-solution’ – I’m not addressing the issue where it belongs but rather I’m addressing it where it doesn’t belong!


Pseudo-solution happens all the time without us realizing it. If we realized it then it wouldn’t be pseudo-solution! A general sense of discomfort or ill-ease about life, dissatisfaction with life, fear about life, etc, can all be channeled into concrete tasks and goals. This – according to the existential philosophers – is the number one driving force in our lives. Sogyal Rinpoche calls it ‘active laziness’. We are ‘active’ because we are always doing stuff and we are ‘lazy’ because we are avoiding doing the work of seeing something that we don’t want to see. We are avoiding the psychological work involved in seeing that all of the strategies we engage in are really for the sake of ‘protecting who we aren’t’. Seeing that we aren’t who we think we are is something that we are just too afraid to see – it’s infinitely easier just to carry on with the self-deceiving game that we are playing…


It is because of this ongoing ‘fear displacement’ therefore that we value skills and technical means of establishing control as much as we do. We wouldn’t talk so incessantly of them if we weren’t chronically insecure! It’s not that skills and techniques can’t be very valuable in their own right – of course they can be – but the point we are making here is that they are only valuable when they are used consciously, for the reasons that we’re ‘supposed’ to be using them. When we use skills and techniques (and our positive knowledge base) for the purpose of ‘solving life’ then this is a different kettle of fish entirely. Why would we even want to solve life? What does this say about us? Where does the impulse to want to solve (or ‘control’) life comes from?


Really, therefore, we’re using our skills and techniques to ‘make the bad feeling go away’, to ‘make the dissatisfaction go away’, to ‘make the fear go away’. The more skills we learn, the more techniques and methods we have under our belt, the better off we feel with regard to this unstated goal, therefore. This is of course natural enough – who could blame us for this? Of course we don’t want to feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, insecure, fearful, and so on. Of course we want to make the bad feeling go away. But the only thing is that we CAN’T escape from this generalized sense of dread and alienation, this ‘angst’ about life. We can’t escape from this uncomfortable feeling because it stems from our relationship with reality. This bad feeling IS our relationship to reality. We can only escape it by escaping wholesale from reality, and it is our (attempted) escaping from reality that creates the alienated and insecure feelings in the first place. We are caught in an unpleasant kind of a loop, a ‘loop of fear’ that keeps on trying to escape itself, in other words, under the apparently positive-sounding guise of ‘fixing’ or ‘controlling’. We caught in the loop of trying to escape the pain caused by our own escaping and for us – whether we realize it or not – this ‘loop’ has become the whole world…


So we say that we want these enhanced methods, these enhanced ways of controlling, for a positive reason, but really we want them because we’re afraid. That’s we have such an appetite for methods – we want to retreat out of reality into the abstracted illusion-realm in which we feel ourselves to be ‘in control’. Wei Wu Wei (1963, p 16) says,

All methods require a doer. The only doer is the I-concept.

We could equivalently say that there is ‘no such thing as an I-concept without a method. The ‘I-concept’ isn’t who we are – it is only an idea, only a thought, only a notion. It’s who we think we are, not who we really are. Because the I-concept isn’t who we really are it is always insecure. It is insecure because it doesn’t exist! It is insecure because it hasn’t got any reality! Because the I-concept is insecure is always caught up in some kind of controlling – it always has to have some sort of strategy, some kind of game-plan, some kind of method. It has to have a ‘gimmick’ because without a gimmick it can’t exist! Without its gimmick, without the particular ‘angle’ that it is playing, the idea that we have of ourselves straightaway starts to dissolve…


If we are relying on methods and techniques therefore (as we do rely on them) then what this shows is that we must be identifying with the I-concept. How can a method not be about identification? If there is a method then there must be ‘something to be gained’ and ‘something to be avoided’. There must be ‘a right result versus a wrong result’ and this is identification. In identification there is never any freedom. There is no freedom at all because everything is all about ‘getting it right and not getting it wrong’ and this is not freedom! On the contrary, this is a rule. This is the absence of freedom. For this reason, it can be seen that when we try to obtain freedom by using methods (or by using ideas) we will be forever going around in circles. There can be no other outcome – circles are all we are going to get!


Just as there is no procedural basis for freedom, there is no procedural basis for being. How can there be a procedural basis for being? How can there be a ‘formula’ for being? How can there be a right way and a wrong way to be? How can we ask, “What are the correct steps to take in order to be?” How can we ask “What is the correct gimmick to help us be real?” If we start off from the position of being identified with the I-concept then we are starting off from a position of ‘non-being’ because the I-concept does not exist. If we start off from a position of ‘non-being’ then no matter how many steps we take, no matter how many procedures we enact, we are never going to get anywhere else other than ‘non-being’. We are going to be dragging that ‘non-being’ around with us wherever we go. ‘Non-being’ – we might say – is our ball-and-chain. It is the maze or prison from which we cannot escape.


If anything we do on the basis of the I-concept is carried out on the basis of something that is itself not real, how is this ever going to get us anywhere? The movement away from the I-concept is unreal just as the I-concept is! As Krishnamurti says in The Urgency of Change (1970, p 189),

Any movement away from what I am strengthens what I am.

All the I-concept can ever understand is controlling, is manipulating, and all controlling, all manipulating, starts off on the basis of a position that is not actually real, a position that does not actually exist. And if we were able to see through the I-concept’s perennial manoeuvrings we would see that all of its strategies only ever really have one aim (albeit an unacknowledged aim) and that is to validate itself. In a nutshell, the I-concept’s ‘secret aim’ is to prove to itself that it actually is real, that it actually is who we are’…


So to get back to the point that we were originally making, in this over-rational culture of ours we tend to get the impression that mindfulness is some form of ‘cleverness’ – a type of strategizing that we can use to help manage the difficulties of everyday life better. And yet it isn’t really anything of the sort – to be mindful is simply to be present in one’s life and there is no cleverness in this at all! To be present is simply to be there and where’s the cleverness in this? We just have to be what we already are, nothing more. We just have to be and this is not a strategy, not a gimmick.


‘Being present’ is not a way by which we can manage life’s difficulties. Quite the reverse is true – it is life’s difficulties that help us to be present! When a difficult situation comes along it can either be a ‘trigger’ or a ‘reminder’ – either it will trigger us to react automatically to control it (to fight the problem or run away from it) or it will remind us to be present. In the first case we move into unreality (the unreality of the world that is created by the thinking, manipulating mind) and in the second case we find ourselves more fully in reality, we partake more wholeheartedly in reality. This – we might say – is ‘the art of being there’.


Practicing ‘the art of being there’ allows us to be present when, the over-riding urge, the constant habitual temptation, is to be absent, is to be not there