Acceptance is the key factor, the crucial ingredient, the philosopher’s stone in the psychotherapeutic process. It is the sine qua non of therapy – the ‘without which there is none’. Acceptance is also said to lie at the very heart of the spiritual path, which when it comes right down to it isn’t any different to the journey of psychotherapy, apart from the fact that it tends to go further. But what does ‘acceptance’ mean?
The question sounds like a simple one, and one moreover that comes with an easy answer, but there is all the same a vast potential for confusion here. The confusion arises because we all live pretty much in the realm of the purposeful. This phrase – the ‘realm of the purposeful’ -tends to sound rather odd to us because we tend to take it for granted that everything is purposeful (which is to say that everything is ‘capable of being made into a goal’, or is ‘capable of being obtained on purpose’) and so to speak of this realm as a mere ‘subset’ of reality doesn’t sit well with us. Even accidents, which aren’t purposeful, are defined in terms of purposefulness – they are what happens when we don’t actualize our goals, when we don’t realize our plans, when we don’t obtain the outcomes that we have specified in advance. But the ‘purposeful’ part of the world (the part of the world that can be correlated with our goals, our picture or model of the world) is only a very small part of the whole, just as, in mathematics, non-random (i.e. specified) numbers constitute only a very small portion of the set of all possible numbers.
We unconsciously assume – and this is pretty much true for all of us – that these two types of events, the type which we specifically want to happen, and the type that we specifically don’t want to happen, between them make up all that is important in our lives. In other words, if it isn’t a YES then it must be a NO, because those are the only two possibilities. If I’m not winning then I must be losing. The point here is that we do not realize that by the far the biggest part of the world is neither winning or losing, that it doesn’t correlate either with our categories for success or failure, that it has nothing whatsoever to do with what we either want or don’t want. The main part of reality (by far) is not purposeful at all but ‘random’ – it cannot be related to our goals, our preconceptions, or even our language. It is essentially ‘indefinable’ or ‘ungraspable’. This indefinable ‘purposeless realm’ is the mighty ocean in which we all swim, preoccupied the whole time with our goals, exclusively concerned with our own ideas and agendas, oblivious to the great universal medium in which both us and our goals are floating. About the purposeless realm nothing really can be said since it doesn’t correspond with our language, our rational-conception models, but just because we cannot define it, formulate it, analyse it, make a goal of it, etc, doesn’t mean that it is insignificant! If I think that whatever I do not understand cannot be important then this is ‘hubris’ – it is the pride of a mortal who thinks that he or she is more than a mortal.
The purposeful realm can be explained by saying that it is the realm in which ‘anything that is to happen must be made (or told) to happen’. Some things lie naturally and properly in this realm: A car engine, for example, will not start itself, unless we first get in the car and turn the ignition key. A can of baked beans will not open itself. The dinner will not make itself. And so on. But acceptance (in the unconditional sense of the word, which is the sense in which we are using it) does not belong in this realm. Acceptance is not to be carried out as a result of ‘an act of will’. It is not a choice or decision that we make, a goal that we obtain, it is far, far deeper than this. If acceptance were an act of will, a decision, then this would imply that our permission was needed for whatever is to happen to happen.
But that would be ludicrous – if I thought that then I would be elevating myself to the role of Supreme Arbitrator, Supreme Controller of the universe. Very obviously I do not need to give my permission for the sun to rise in the morning, or for the wind to blow, or the rain to fall. My permission is not needed, which is what King Canute sought to demonstrate when he moved his throne to the beach and sternly forbad the tide to come in. The story goes that his courtiers were full of empty flattery about what a great and all-powerful king he was, and in order to show them once and for all how foolish such praise was he staged this famous (but often misunderstood) demonstration. Faced with the impossibility of telling the oncoming tide what to do, the mightiest emperor is on a par with the smallest child. The tide is equally indifferent to either our agreement or our objection.
Acceptance, therefore, isn’t about grandiosity, or delusions about being more central to the scheme of things than we really are – or even being central at all. It is not about having an over-inflated sense of responsibility (which is to say, the neurotic idea that we are or should be personally responsible for how everything turns out) but about having a clear understanding that the universe doesn’t need our permission to unfold in whatever way it is going to. This isn’t however a helpless or passive attitude, which is very much how our ‘control-based’ culture tends to see it, but rather it is fearless and open and trusting – all the things controlling is not. Acceptance, in the sense that we are using the word, is not glum resignation to a power that is greater than we are, but graceful participation in a process that is an inherent part of ourselves just as much as it is part of the outside world.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that I say “This is rotten but there is nothing I can do about it, so I’ll just put up with it.” That would be bad grace, a form of sulking. On the contrary, acceptance means that I am being generously wholehearted, not sulky or despairing or embittered, about whatever is going on. I am giving my assent, not in the sense that the process needs my permission, but in the sense that even though I don’t have any guarantees about what is going to happen I am, all the same, fully prepared to take the risk. I am not accepting because ‘it is the right thing to do’ or because I think that I might ultimately benefit from so doing – that wouldn’t be ‘taking a risk’ at all, that would simply be a subtler form of controlling. I don’t accept because I ‘have to’ or because I think it’s a ‘good’ thing to do, I accept because ‘acceptance’ is a natural expression of my wholeheartedness, my uncalculated willingness to trust what is going on without having any written guarantees that this will benefit me.
Another way of putting this is to say that the attitude which we are talking about has nothing to do with fulfilling personal agendas, which tends very much to be our Number One Preoccupation. Agendas are how the rational mind works, and although there is nothing wrong with the way in which the rational mind works, there are times when clinging to rationality and agendas works against us rather than for us. This is a question of short-sightedness – which is when we see the little picture, the fine details rather than the bigger picture. We see the trees but not the forest. The way rationality works is by tuning into the fine details, the narrow view, and so it should come as no surprise that when we get overly rational we get stuck in the logic of the small picture, which does not allow for the possibility of anything ‘outside’ of our pre-occupying concerns, the goals we which we are compulsively attached to. Rationality simply does not contain within its narrow scope the possibility of ‘letting go’ and so when things get difficult the logic of our thinking tells us that we have to keep on trying to look for an answer within the limited remit of what we can think about, and can control, even though this stubborn insistence on ‘ignoring the bigger picture’ is bound to end in an intensification and escalation of our suffering.
Looking at things this way, we can say that acceptance means allowing the details to be wrong or unsatisfactory because we understand that they are only ‘wrong’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ from the incomplete point of view of the small picture, which wants to bend the whole world to agree with its limited logic. So for example if I have become swallowed up in obsessive perfectionism, then I will get very upset or perhaps angry if the details of whatever I am working with don’t match up exactly with my idea for them. I am so tuned into the small picture that I cannot see that it is absurd for me to be so upset, or even tormented, by the details not being right because whether the details are ‘right’ or ‘not right’ doesn’t matter so much (or even at all!) in the bigger picture of things. What I am concerned about simply doesn’t warrant me getting so wound up and distressed, and if only I could stop working away so frantically to get things to work out the way I want them to then I would be able to see beyond the limited logic of my rational, controlling mind and as a result I would find that I am now much more likely to be able to ‘let go’ of it all. Again, ‘letting go’ isn’t a sign of weakness or failure, and it isn’t just that we are making the best of a bad situation because we have been put in a position where we are forced to accept it, but rather it is wholehearted assent to what we can’t understand, but which we trust all the same.
Accepting that things are not the way I want them to be is tremendously difficult, but it is at the same time tremendously helpful. The biggest difficulty here is that I don’t actually believe that there is any great value (or even any value at all) in accepting that things are not the way I want them to be. As we have said, this attitude seems weak or feeble, it seems very much like the beginning of the end once we start ‘giving in’ in this way. But this is because we have got it all backwards in our thinking – obviously it is a lot harder to tolerate a situation which conflicts with our wishes, and obviously it is very easy to be in a situation which agrees with or matches our wishes, and so how come we keep thinking that it is ‘strong’ to have things the way we want them to be? This is like saying that it is a sign of strength for me to always arrange things so that there is no challenge there for myself. How is this ‘strong’? This is merely being terrified of a challenge…
Clearly what we call ‘strong’ is actually weak and what we call ‘weak’ is strong. This is plain to see when we think about people we know who are not good at relinquishing control, people who fly to pieces when things don’t go ‘according to plan’. This is not being strong – being strong is when we don’t need to be in control the whole time, when we don’t need every little thing to go according to plan, when we actually enjoy being surprised. Being able to accept is not the same thing as being ‘stoical’ either – it doesn’t mean that we are strong in the sense of being able to endure circumstances that are frankly undesirable. It is not that I really hate my situation but am able to put up with it because I am ‘tough-minded’ in that way, because I know that it is ‘the right thing to do’ and force myself therefore to endure it. That would be mere ignorant brutality rather than anything else – that doesn’t count as ‘acceptance’ at all, it is simply a form of self-punishing or self-harming!
It is not strong to for me to punish myself or harm myself in this way because what I am doing is simply reacting. Reacting means that I am feeling bad, and instead of gently staying with that pain I lash out violently – in this case I lash out against myself, I take it out on myself, I punish myself. The reason this does not qualify as ‘strength’ is of course because it comes out of my inability to see the truth, to stay with the truth, etc, and this inability is due to my lack of strength. I punish myself because I am not able to be patient, because my only way of finding relief – however momentary that relief might be – is by violently lashing out, violently recriminating against myself for not being different to the way I actually am.
But even if I was strong in the genuine way, in the way which means I can stay with the truth of my situation, however painful, rather than running away, how does that help me? I’m still going to be in that same situation, only this time I will perhaps have a gentler, less reactive attitude to it. Having a gentle, patient, non-reactive attitude is actually a very big change and this alone will significantly reduce the suffering that I am going through. But there is more to the therapeutic change that results from genuine unconditional acceptance than just reducing the unnecessary suffering that comes from violent reacting (which is the ‘extra suffering’ that comes from trying unsuccessfully to avoid the original suffering), even though this is highly significant in itself.
When I unconditionally accept my situation a profound change comes about to that situation itself. This is the principle that Gestalt psychotherapists call ‘paradoxical change’. Paradoxical change means that only when I wholeheartedly accept my situation can my situation change – as long as I don’t accept it then it can’t change. So if I accept my anxiety, then my anxiety changes; if I accept my anger then my anger changes; if I accept my fear then my fear changes; if I accept my depression then my depression changes, and so on. My condition changes only when I have thoroughly given up trying to change it.
Joseph Campbell (1949, P 116-8) relates a story, an ancient Irish myth, which illustrates this principle within a mythological setting –
A story, for example, is told of the five sons of the Irish king Eochaid: of how, having gone one day ahunting, they found themselves astray, shut in on every hand. Thirsty, they set off, one by one, to look for water. Fergus was the first: “and he lights on a well, over which he finds an old woman standing sentry. The fashion of the hag is this: blacker than coal every joint and segment of her was, from crown to ground; comparable to a wild horse’s tail the grey wiry mass of hair that pierced her scalp’s upper surface; with her sickle of a greenish looking tusk that was in her head, and curled till it touched her ear, she could lop the verdant branch of an oak in full bearing; blackened and smoke-bleared eyes she had; nose awry, wide-nostrilled; a wrinkled and freckled belly, variously unwholesome; warped crooked shins, garnished with massive ankles and a pair of capacious shovels; knotty knees she had and livid nails. The beldame’s whole description is fact was disgusting. ‘That’s the way it is, is it?’ said the lad, and ‘that’s the very way,’ she answered. ‘Is it guarding the well thou art?’ he asked, and she said: ‘it is’. ‘Dost thou licence me to take away some water?’ ‘I do,’ she consented, ‘yet only so that I may have of thee one kiss on my cheek.’ ‘Not so,’ said he. ‘Then water shall not be conceded by me.’ ‘My word I give, ‘he went on, ‘that sooner than give thee a kiss I would perish of thirst!’ Then the young man departed to the place where his brethren were, and told them that he had not gotten water.”
Olioll, Brian, and Fiachra, likewise, went on the quest and equally attained to the identical well. Each solicited the old thing for water, but denied her the kiss.
Finally it was Niall who went, and he came to the very well. “‘let me have water, woman!’ he cried. ‘I will give it,’ said she, ‘and bestow on me a kiss.’ He answered: ‘forby giving thee a kiss, I will even hug thee!’ Then he bends to embrace her, and gives her a kiss. Which operation ended, and when he looked at her, in the whole world was not a young woman of gait more graceful, in universal semblance fairer than she: to be likened to the last-fallen snow lying in trenches every portion of her was, from crown to sole; plump and queenly forearms, fingers long and taper, straight legs of a lovely hue she had; two sandals of the white bronze betwixt her smooth and soft white feet and the earth; about her was an ample mantle of the choicest fleece, pure crimson, and in the garment a broach of white silver; she had lustrous teeth of pearl, great regal eyes, mouth as red as the rowanberry. …
The ‘transformation motif’ of the frog turning into a prince or (a hag turning into a princess) when kissed is of course a very familiar one in fairy tales. Joseph Campbell goes on to say that the apparently fruitless situation in this story is transformed by an attitude of gentleness and kind-heartedness, which the youngest brother exemplifies. In contrast, the elder brothers are hard-headed and business-like in their approach to life, being motivated by narrow self-interest rather than kindness. This isn’t to say that fairy tales and myths are all about morality however – morality is a different thing altogether, and has nothing to do with what we are discussing here. Morality is essentially an empty, superficial sort of thing – we behave in a certain way (for example, in an unselfish way) because it is ‘good’ to do so, because it is ‘right’ to do so. If we succeed in superficially behaving in this way, then we have satisfied the relevant criteria and everyone is happy with us. It is empty as that – the question of why I am acting in such a way never comes into it. Nobody cares, the only thing people care about is that my external behaviour fits the template for what it is supposed to be. My motivation for my behaviour is deemed irrelevant, inconsequential, uninteresting, which is peculiar since it is precisely this (my motivation) that is relevant, consequential, of interest, etc. So if I am acting unselfishly because I am afraid of breaking the rules, or because I want to gain social acceptance or approval, then this does not count at all – that is not being unselfish because my motivation is selfish and it is the motivation that counts. It’s not what I do, but why I do it that counts. The people around me may be fooled by my apparently unselfish behaviour, and reward me accordingly, but nature won’t be fooled, and nature won’t reward me.
A good example of this is the fairy story Mother Hulda. In this story there is a rich widow who has daughter and a step-daughter, the daughter is lazy and favoured by her mother, whilst the industrious and good natured step-daughter – as one might expect – has to do all the work and gets treated badly into the bargain. By accident the step-daughter falls down a well and ends up in a strange world where she ends up working as a maidservant for Mother Hulda. She does all the jobs she is set with diligence and good humour, and when the time comes for her to return to the everyday world Mother Hulda rewards her with a shower of gold coins, which sticks to her as she returns back up the well. The rich widow is of course beside herself with rage and spite to see the step-daughter do so well out of the adventure because she thinks that her own daughter should have had this good fortune, and so she sends the lazy daughter down the well in the same way. Needless to say, the lazy daughter carries out the tasks in her usual slip-shod, half-hearted manner, impatiently and with one eye always on the gold she believes she will obtain in return. Not so easily fooled, Mother Hulda rewards her for her laziness by giving her a shower of pitch before she returns home, which sticks fast to her and remains stuck fast for the rest of her days.
Psychologically speaking, we may say that this story illustrates the idea that we don’t get anywhere by trying to copy or replicate spontaneous processes, which is a point that Jung was very clear about. We see a result, and then we analyse it and try to work out a procedure to replicate the process that produced the result that we like so much. It comes very naturally to us to do this sort of thing – it is the nature of the rational/analytic mind to try to manipulate things to its advantage, based on its understanding of the situation. That is how it works, and that is the only way in which it can work. So if this calculating, evaluating mind hears that acceptance is the way to obtain results then it will try to mimic acceptance. As the rational mind does this it does not realize that it is ‘mimicking’ – it imagines in all honesty that it can ‘do’ acceptance in the same way that it does everything else. What the rational mind does not – and cannot – understand is that anything and everything it does is always the complete antithesis of ‘acceptance’ because anything and everything it does is only ever an attempt to suit itself (i.e. it is only ever an attempt to gain something by manipulating its situation).
The rational mind always has an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda, and because of this it can never obtain that which it hopes to attain, which in fairy tales is portrayed by the motif of a pot of gold, a cauldron of plenty, a magical weapon, a healing draught or an elixir of immortality, and so on. Jung would say that the treasure which the fragmented rational consciousness is perennially searching for is Wholeness, but this – needless to say – is the one thing it will never find since Wholeness can never be made into a goal. There are several ways in which we can explain why this should be so. One way is to say that if Wholeness (i.e. the un-fragmented or undivided reality) is made into a goal then this necessarily means that it coincides with a category of the mind, which automatically makes reality a sub-division since categories (or ‘classes’) are by their very nature divisions of a whole. If reality is made into a goal (i.e. if it pertains to the ‘realm of the purposeful’) then that implies that the place we are starting off from is not reality, otherwise why would we need to make a goal of it? But that is of course ridiculous since if something is not reality, then it is not worth discussing – and certainly not worth making into starting-point for our ‘quest for reality’. As Professor Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games, if we play in order to attain life, then this implies that we are not yet alive. If one starts off from the premise that life (or reality) has to be won or attained, and is not intrinsically possessed, then this means that we are not yet alive (or real) and so how can we ever reach anywhere from this deficient basis? The rational mind only ever leads to itself, and is incapable of taking us in the direction of any wider reality. It is fundamentally incompatible with a wider reality, just as oil is fundamentally incompatible with water.
Another way to explain why Wholeness can never be made into a goal, and purposefully obtained via some sort of clever procedure, is to look at the most pertinent quality of any goal, which is that it is an artefact of a particular (and therefore limited) point of view – it is an artefact of my point of view! It is my idea of Wholeness, my take or perspective on Wholeness. In other words it is Wholeness as conceived of by me in relation to me. To be totally blunt about it, what we are saying here is that my idea of Wholeness is simply my own projection, my own invention – which is to say, it is me, and therefore it is not wholeness at all but just my own ignorance painted large upon the world. My problem (and it is – to me – a totally invisible problem) is that I am assuming that reality to have a relevance to the set of randomly-acquired assumptions which is my viewpoint. I am making myself (i.e. my viewpoint, my assumptions) completely central to everything without even realizing that this is what I am doing. In order to find Wholeness (which is unrestricted reality or reality that has not been put in categories of the mind) I would have to drop my assumptions rather than enshrining them in a position of unassailable centrality, but if I am being logical or rational in my search for Wholeness then this is the one thing that I can never do. If I am being logical then I have to take my assumptions (my logical premises) totally for granted since this is the way logic works, the only way it can work; without an absolute (i.e. unquestionable) basis it can never proceed, without some ground under it it can never get going.
All of this takes us back to what we were originally saying when we stated that we live ‘in the realm of the purposeful’. Because we live in a mind-created world which is made entirely of the purposeful, we imagine that everything is purposeful; in other words, we imagine that the world coincides pretty much exactly with our ideas of it, our mental picture of it. Instead of seeing that the world is perfectly independent of how we choose to see it, and that our assumptions about it – far from being ‘spot-on’ – are actually sublimely irrelevant, completely off the mark, we automatically think that our way of looking at things is the ‘right way’. As we have said, thinking that we are central to everything (thinking that our viewpoint is the right one rather than being purely arbitrary and therefore irrelevant) makes the universe our responsibility – on the one hand we feel good because this makes us feel significant, but on the other hand, for exactly the same reason, it makes us fall victim to the nightmare of anxiety and worry, which is due to the false belief that we have to be in control the whole time, or else something terrible will happen. What we have called ‘the purposeful realm,’ apart from being wretchedly narrow and sadly limited, is always haunted by the spectre of anxiety. In other words, even though the ‘view of the world’ that is created by the rational/conceptual mind and which is mistaken by it for the whole of reality isn’t that great anyway (and certainly not worth the effort we put in to trying to maintain it since all the effort we put into maintaining it merely blocks out or occludes the view of life as it really is) we fear losing it more than anything else.
The rational, purposeful mind ‘sees’ always in a straight line, so to speak, and all it ever sees in this linear, blinkered way are its own unconscious logical premise reflected faithfully back at it. This idea is familiar from the work of the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, who has written many stories (e.g. Solaris, and His Master’s Voice) exploring the theme of a researcher investigating some eerie and undecipherable phenomenon, which invariably turns out to be his own unknown face looking back out at him out of some kind of mirror. Reality (or ‘Wholeness’) lies forever at right angles to rationality’s narrow line of sight and no matter how deviously it twists from side to side, from this way to that, in whatever clever, convoluted manner, it never gets to see it. “Man is an obstacle, sad as a cloud”, as David Bowie says. The clever purposeful mind can never know what Carse calls ‘the Other,’ that un-constructed (or ‘unintentional’) reality which exists independently of it. All it ever knows are its own projections, reflected back at it in disguised form. This is like a man who is conducting a debate with himself, alternatively jumping from one chair to the other in order to champion both sides of the argument. In the following passage taken from Aion [CW9] Jung describes the situation of a person who lives solely in a world made up of his or her projections –
…As we know it is not the conscious subject but the unconscious which does the projecting. Hence one meets with projections, one does not make them. The effect of projection is to isolate the subject from his environment, since instead of a real relation to it there is now only an illusory one. Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face. In the last analysis, therefore, they lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable. The resulting sentiment d’incompletude and the still worse feeling of sterility are in their turn explained by projection as the malevolence of the environment, and by means of this vicious circle the isolation is intensified. The more projections are thrust in between the subject and the environment, the harder it is for the ego to see through its illusions.
This self-involved, projection-obsessed mind is perennially restless, perennially dissatisfied, perennially driven by its need to avoid the all-encompassing boredom that it itself creates as a result of its own fundamentally sterile nature. It can’t afford to stay still, for then it ‘catches up with itself’ and starts to suffocate in its own sterility, like a motorist caught in a traffic jam, choking on the exhaust fumes of his own car. The ongoing activity of the mind provides momentary relief from the incipient suffocation – but at the same time it is itself the problem from which it needs to escape (just as heroin is both the problem and the solution to the problem for a heroin addict).
The only possibility of finding freedom from the cycle of boredom and anxiety which is the hallmark of the manipulating or controlling mind lies in laying down of that mind, as one would lay down a tool that one no longer needs, rather than its continued and unnecessary utilization. We could equally well say that the only possibility of finding freedom from purposefulness (from having to do everything on purpose, with a reason in mind, with the intention of gaining something) lies in acceptance (or ‘letting go’). As we have said, acceptance or letting go is not to be found within the remit of the realm of the purposeful – the rational mind exists solely to change things, its ‘reason for being’ is that it manipulates or massages reality to suit what we want, thereby creating a bubble or cocoon of ‘manipulated reality’ around us, like some sort of insulating layer. As soon as I hear that acceptance is a good thing, that it is the answer to my problems, the manipulating mind starts trying to manipulate itself into being ‘accepting’ rather than ‘controlling’. It has an outcome in mind, as always – the outcome of ‘being accepting’. Not being ‘accepting’ is now no longer ok. But when the manipulating mind tries to manipulate itself into being non-manipulating (when the controlling mind tries to control itself so much that it no longer controls) then the problem is simply escalated. Things get worse again, more tortuous, more convoluted. The gates of neurotic hell swing open, and the horrific torments that lie within are revealed. The rational mind – which we trust and rely on so much – is not the right man for the job, he is never going to attain the psychological Wholeness that comes with acceptance, not if he beavers away for a billion years.
In fairy tales we frequently come across the motif of the younger brother, who no one suspects of greatness, succeeding where his older brother fails, as in the story of the Five Sons of King Eochaid. Great things are expected of the eldest son, all eyes are upon him, all hopes are pinned upon him. It is the eldest son who inherits the Kingdom, it is he who must succeed his father, and who is trained in the arts and sciences accordingly. The youngest son is traditionally seen as a bit of a fool, a figure of fun – he is a harmless dreamer, a simpleton, and so on. He is ‘away with the fairies’. No one really takes him seriously and no one expects great things from him, and because of this he is left alone, left to his own devices. The eldest son, on the other hand, is full of his own self-importance and always busy with his own important agenda, and as a result has no time for foolishness or soft-headedness of any sort. He possesses, in other words, all the characteristics of the rational or purposeful mind.
The youngest son on the other hand is spontaneous, which is to say, he acts out of his heart rather than his head, without any thought about whether he is to benefit or not from his actions. He is untainted by the curse of rational self-interest. If he sees a small bird caught in trap in the forest, he straightaway frees it; if he comes across a starving creature, he will feed it his own lunch, and so on. All of these things he does without thinking, for no reason – it is natural for him to be like this and he is not trying to gain anything as a result. But even though he is not trying to gain anything as a result of what he does (which is to say, he is not being purposeful) the youngest son ends up having luck where his elder brother doesn’t. The creatures he helped along the way turn up to help him or warn him or give him good advice, and so – against what seems like insurmountable odds – he obtains what no one else was able to. Because he is not forever trying to help himself and benefit himself (because he is not forever ignoring everything apart from his own narrow interests) when he is in need the whole world turns out to help him and so no adversity, no matter how cruel or powerful, is too much for him.
This is ancient wisdom – timeless wisdom in fact – and yet these days in our reliance in rational psychology and its clever methods and procedures we have forgotten it. It is not cleverness or sophistication that will save us, nor training our poor overloaded minds to do this or do that, when anxiety or depression strikes us, nor filling up our heads with yet more theories and facts, but learning to lay down the tool of rational thought, just as one lays down the shovel when one has finished digging the garden, or just as one turns off the car engine when one arrives back home after work. There are no theories needed for this, no procedures taken from a book, no sophisticated ‘scientific’ terminology. All of that is the very stuff we are laying down – all of that is mere ‘cleverness’! There is no way to be clever about this sort of thing, there is no ‘method’ for acceptance since the very moment I start with a method I have become non-accepting. After all, what do I want a method for if I am being accepting? A method is a way of changing, manipulating, controlling, and so on. It is a way of getting things to be different from the way they already are, it is a way of ‘getting the world to suit us,’ which is nothing new, but exactly what I am always trying to do.
I can’t manipulate myself into being non-manipulative. So when I notice that I am trying to take control, that I am straining to get things to be a particular way, then I am gentle and patient about this tendency rather than rigid and judgemental. It is the way I am and so I take an interest in it, rather than struggling against it. I take an interest in myself, in a kind-hearted sort of a way. If I notice that I am not being gentle with myself, and that I am struggling against myself, then I am gentle and patient with this. If I notice that I am not able to be kind with myself, then I notice this in a kind way. It’s not about forcing cajoling ourselves not to be rigid and judgemental, but realizing that it’s ok to be the way we are, that whatever way we are, it’s ok to be like that. That doesn’t sound right to us – it’s not ok to be rigid or judgemental, I protest. But if I say that it’s not ok to be rigid and judgemental then that itself is rigid and judgemental!
Once I take the time to see this absurdity then the vicious circle of ‘controlling our own controlling’ (or ‘struggling against our own struggling’) is broken and I have moved out of the realm of the purposeful. At this point I am no longer thinking narrowly in terms of ‘hit or miss’, ‘right or wrong,’ ‘winning or losing,’ ‘success or failure’ and so instead of being stuck in the rational mind which is always busy trying to achieve within its own narrow remit (or busy trying to avoid failure within its own narrow remit, which is the same thing) I have entered into a bigger and freer world.
We enter into a bigger and freer world not by forever consolidating and building upon our position, and making ourselves thereby into the ‘centre of the universe’ (which is what the insecure, empire-building ego always wants to do) but by not taking our personal prejudices, our attachments so very seriously. We ‘accept’ what the conditioned self doesn’t like, we ‘accept’ what it hates and fears. This acceptance doesn’t help or benefit the conditioned self (clearly it doesn’t since the only thing that benefits the conditioned self is taking its own automatic prejudices totally seriously at all times) but what it does do is that it allows us to cease compulsively identifying with that self. That conditioned self isn’t who we are anyway – it is merely an obscuration or obstruction to us knowing who we really are. It is the sad cloud that blocks the light.
‘Accepting’ what we don’t like is the same thing as taking an interest in the way in which we automatically ‘don’t like’ (the way in which we are aversively inclined towards) certain things, certain situations. When we take the time to pay attention to the strange way in which we always rush to obey and believe in our conditioning, despite the fact that our conditioning is entirely arbitrary (or ‘randomly-acquired’) then we move back in the direction of being spontaneous rather than compulsive and goal-driven. So rather than always subconsciously assuming that we are the ‘absolute centre of the universe’ (i.e. assuming that our impulses, ideas, beliefs and opinions are to be believed in absolutely and acted upon immediately) we can see our proper position, which is the ‘infinitely relativistic’ position of being ‘a grain of sand in the desert’. What we choose to believe about the universe is strictly irrelevant, and is therefore purely ‘our own affair’.
This shift from goals and beliefs to spontaneity and openness is the journey out of the self-important, self-involved, projection-obsessed ego into an ‘ego-dwarfing’ immensity of freedom, which is at the same time ‘a journey to nowhere’ since the narrow, absurd idea of self that we habitually and anxiously cling to doesn’t actually go anywhere. It is not that through this journey we find freedom for this narrow and painfully restricted idea of self (which is of course how it likes to see the journey), but that we find freedom from it and its pointless, suffocating and essentially arbitrary restrictions.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.