We only think because we believe that thinking makes a difference. Or, to put it another way, if we know for sure that we couldn’t solve a problem, we would stop trying. In our day-to-day interactions with the world thought usually seems to make a lot of difference: the contrast between the result of one decision, and the result of another, can often be very dramatic – life or death, even. The importance of our ‘power to choose’ is reinforced at every turn, in fact all of our education serves to underline this emphasis. We measure our quality of life in terms of our ‘power to choose’, i.e. in terms of our power to ‘get what we want’. This emphasis gives us a dangerously one-sided view of things, though – it is dangerous because when we rely too much on our power to choose we end up completely losing our peace of mind. This is because peace of mind does not come from choices that we make, but from the understanding that ‘where we are’ is, ultimately, never the result of our choice. In order to explain this statement we only have to consider that there might be a difference between reality and what we think we know about it.
Suppose I Don’t Know What I Think I Know…
I can only ever choose from what I know, and so for my goals to mean anything, I obviously have to assume that what I know is actually true – I have to assume that my knowledge stands in some sort of meaningful relationship to reality. Furthermore, we have to assume that there is nothing significant out there in the world that we do not know about. In other words, I have to take it for granted that I haven’t missed out anything important in my calculations. Now the first pint tends to sound absurd to us – if I started to suspect that the whole of my knowledge about the world was false or mistaken then surely I wouldn’t be able to do a thing. Everything would be thrown into confusion. The second point sounds more reasonable, but, all the same, none of us (or very few of us ) tend to go around suspecting that there is hole in our knowledge of the world and ourselves, that there is a blind-spot in our mental vision, so to speak.
And yet, it is an absolutely guaranteed fact that there is a huge blind-spot in our knowledge. The way rational thought works is by picking out an area to focus on, and ignoring what lies outside this area, and so actually it cannot ever function without having a blind-spot. Psychologist Guy Claxton (1994, p 3) is making the same point when he says that what goes on ‘behind’ the mind is closed to us and that all we can ever see is the picture that is projected upon the screen of our normal, everyday awareness:
Contrary to popular opinion, the human mind is a closed book. The room behind the eyes is forever dark. No access is possible, either by thinking or via the senses – for thoughts and experiences are the produce of this obscure factory, not glimpses of it operation. As with the manufacture of Cointreau of Tabasco, what goes on behind the scenes is a jealously guarded trade secret. All we get to do is taste the concoction; to the world of the concoctor we are not privy at all. In the mind feelings are fabricated, thoughts are marshalled, perceptual pictures are painted. But of the painter and the engineer we have no idea.
Or rather, we can only have ideas. We think we are looking at ourselves through transparent windows. We think that consciousness gives us privileged access to our process and our nature: that the dark-room of the mind is light and airy, and our natural home. We think that the stories which it tells us about itself are true. Yet we are not looking through clear glass. We are looking at a screen on which some rather special products of the mind’s activity are back-projected.
What this means is that the world we see and know about is like the tip of an iceberg – no matter how much we familiarize ourselves with what lies above the surface, that still doesn’t tell us about what lies below. therefore, in order to be realistic about things, we would have to take into account that we don’t really know as much as we think we do. This brings us to point number one which is – as Guy Claxton suggest – that maybe even what we think we know, we don’t. Once we accept that we are always missing out a vitally important ‘chunk’ of reality in our calculations, this throws a new light on what we do see to be true. The true meaning of the ‘partial picture’ of the world that our conceptual/rational minds produce can only be seen when we relate it to the broader picture – the whole is needed to put the part in its proper perspective. What this means is that if we see the part as being ‘the whole story’, then vital perspective has been lost and so our supposed ‘knowledge’ is simply an hallucination.
Now our knowledge wouldn’t be hallucinatory if we had the perspective to see that a view is always just a view and not the thing itself, but this perspective is exactly what we tend to lose. When mental perspective is lost in this way, what we call ‘neurotic mental illness’ sets in – anxiety, mania, depression, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and all the variations that lie in-between. For this reason we can say that ‘knowing that we don’t know’ is actually healthy! It is healthy because it reconnects us with the Whole…
Reality Is Choiceless
If we were to think deeply enough about things, we would realise that our basic situation is something that we have absolutely no choice over, and it is precisely this ‘choice-lessness’ that gives us peace of mind. I can go shopping, or go to the cinema. I can jump on a plane and fly to Rio de Janeiro, or go home and watch TV. But this is choice only on one level only – nothing really changes, not deep down. My basic situation comes along with me, no matter where I go – all I am doing is messing around with the icing on the cake. Even though it might seem a bit strange to put it this way, the truth is that I am only playing a game, which is to say, I am choosing options out a set of known alternatives, out of my inventory of ‘things to do’. We could also say that it is a game in the sense that whatever choice I make, I am still not going ‘beyond the known’, and since what I know isn’t the true picture anyway, this means that I am not actually going anywhere…
At the beginning of this discussion we said that we only think because we believe that thinking makes a difference. We could equally well have said that we to say that we only think because we are anxious, which is to say, because we are nervous about staying in control. We might not always feel as if we are anxious when we think, but all thought that is based on a hidden set of assumptions involves anxiety somewhere. This is because we are automatically invested in those assumptions being ‘right’, and deep down we can’t help knowing that they may not be right. Anxiety, in other words, occurs because it matters to us that we are in control (and having a sure and certain knowledge about our situation is itself a basic form of ‘control’), but at the same time we suspect that we are not in control. We suspect that we are not in control because we can’t help knowing (on some level) that we don’t know what we know. Of course, if we consciously realised that we don’t really know, then there would be no anxiety because there would be no need to lie to ourselves, no need to keep it a secret from ourselves, but our awareness of ‘radical uncertainty’ (i.e. our fundamental existential insecurity) is usually unconscious rather than conscious.
Anxiety occurs because we over-extend ourselves by taking on responsibility for factors that really have nothing to do with us at all, factors that are, and always have been, completely ‘out of our control’. When it comes down to it, what we can control is only a very small part of the totality of what is going on, just as what we can know is always only a very small part of what is really there. What we are basically saying here is that reality isn’t a game – it is not something we can select out of a finite set of known alternatives. As we have said, the rational mind and the world that it comprehends are like the tip of an iceberg, giving no indication whatsoever of the full-picture. Not only do they fail to tell us how much is under the surface, they don’t even give us a clue about what we might expect to find there. As professor James Carse remarks, the mind uses metaphors to speak of what lies beyond it, the point being that metaphors don’t deal with reality as it is, but as if it is…..
Making Life into A Game
This in itself is no problem – it is perfectly legitimate to approach reality through metaphor; the problems appear when I start taking thought’s metaphors as literal descriptions of the big, mysterious universe we live in. When I live in a world of literal descriptions I am no longer living in the big, mysterious universe, but in a game. A game, therefore, is where I think I actually know what is going on. This, needless to say, is something that we all automatically tend to do! When I make life into a game then I start to feel a sense of responsibility towards everything – it is as if I am somehow running the show. This implicit (or unstated) belief in the need for personal control is a sure-fire guarantee for many a sleepless night.
It is at night, when I am in bed trying to get to sleep, that I really notice the ‘not-so-effective’ side of thinking, the futile, utterly superfluous side of it all. It is not hard, after worrying for the umpteenth time over some minor detail that I know perfectly well I don’t really need to bother about, to work out that there is absolutely no profit whatsoever in the exercise. If I have to attend a difficult interview, there is no value in going through it fifty times in my imagination the night before. To do it once, in reality, is enough. And, of course, I know this perfectly well. The trouble is – I just can’t stop thinking, I can’t stop my mind going around in its annoyingly petty little circles, not for love nor money…
You Can’t Stop Thinking On Purpose
It is when I keep finding myself awake at all hours of the night, engaged in non-productive thinking, worrying about trivia, chasing my own tail, that I am inclined to seek some sort of advice or help. There are various helpful suggestions that one might come across, but what these suggestions usually overlook is the one fundamental principle of the inner (or mental) world. What this principle says is that you can’t chose your own mental state the same way you can choose your shirt or your tie. Control doesn’t do it; manipulation simply doesn’t work in the inner realm of thoughts and feelings. With regard to thoughts, what this boils down to is the simple observation that you can’t stop thinking on purpose. If someone says they can, then what they really mean is that they can mentally produce, by some inner effort, a state of ‘blankness’, a simulated peacefulness, which they take to be the absence of thought. Sleeping pills have much the same effect. This type of manufactured (or contrived) blankness is invariably sterile, uninspiring, draining and dead, in contrast to natural tranquillity of mind, which is creative, rewarding, self-refreshing and very much alive. So how do I arrive at the much-desired state of natural mental tranquillity? This is the great question!
The first point to re-iterate is that this most ‘non-artificial’ of states cannot be arrived at by artifice or cunning. The unmodified (which is to say ‘un-manipulated’) state of mind cannot be obtained by modification, manipulation, or any sort of interference. In other words, I can’t fix it so I don’t keep thinking about stuff. On the other hand, if I carry on the way I am, then this is no good either! So what am I to do?
The ‘Jumping-Off’ Point
This might seem to be a hopeless or dead-end place to find oneself in, a’ damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of a situation. I can’t go forward and I can’t go back! From the point of view of our narrow, every-day thinking, to find ourselves in a mental cul-de-sac is a terrible thing, but from the point of view of our whole consciousness, it is a blessing in disguise. This is the point where thinking is defeated, where the mind gives up, and it is only when rational, purposeful activity ceases that the stalemate imposed by the mind can be escaped. Anything the mind does is part of the old pattern, and it is the pattern that is the problem; it is because we don’t see that our thinking is totally incapable of solving the underlying contradiction that we keep on at it, not realising that we are treading a well-worn path that simply goes round in futile circles. The point is that we have to be forcefully confronted with the essential insolubility of the problem that we are trying to fix before we learn to stop trying to fix it. It is necessary to truly understand the cul-de-sac that thought puts us in before we can go beyond it. therefore, the irreconcilable contradiction that says, “You can’t go forward and you can’t go back” is actually a springboard, a ‘jumping-off’ point that takes us out of the trap of closed YES/NO logic, which is the known pattern of the mind, into the mysteriousness of the unknown. Seeing clearly the uselessness of thought is itself the gateway to inner freedom. When I see that I can’t fix the problem, I stop trying.
The Map Is Not The Territory
The unknown is inconceivable to us, necessarily so, since we don’t have a map-reference for it. It is for this reason that we don’t rely on it – we would rather jump to the conclusion that we already know everything that is worth knowing, and proceed to work out our problem-solving plans on that (false) basis. Even when it becomes apparent that our attempts to solve the problems that plague us are totally futile, we still keep at it. After all, we don’t know any other way, we don’t know what else to do. This, as we have said, is the nature of anxiety.
The point is, though, if we really know that ‘we don’t know’, we’d stop relying on YES and No, and instead open ourselves up to the unknown, which we shall call (?). We don’t generally make this jump, however, because we are so identified with our map of reality, so hypnotised by its ‘power to explain’, that we just can’t get enough perspective to even begin to understand the idea that the map is not the territory. This is a really simple idea, and yet dynamite isn’t enough to blast it into our heads! For some reason we would rather continue going around endlessly in frustrating circles than open up our minds enough to see that our game-plan is defective.
The Need For ‘Security-At-Any-Price’
What is this reason? One answer is to say that the security and protection which is provided by our unquestioning belief in our power to ‘know’ reality (i.e. by our trust in the map) must be so important to us that we would rather put up with anything than expose ourselves to the truth of uncertainty. We would rather trust the map (even though we know deep down that it is false) than uncertainty, which we intuitively know to be true. If only I could muster up the courage to face the fact that I don’t know what to do, then I would stop my counterproductive activity. This takes trust, it takes faith in my own ability to do the right thing without having a mental model about what the ‘right thing’ is. I have to trust in my own spontaneity, in other words. Spontaneity means not defining myself, and not defining what is around me. I perceive the ‘unknowingness’ of what is happening, and therefore I do not obstruct the mysterious universe (which is also myself) in its functioning. As we said, reality only comes as a problem when we approach it on the false basis that we know what it is.
Nailing Down Reality
Reality definitely is a big problem if we try to deal with it from the viewpoint of our rational understanding, from a position of ‘certainty’. It is a problem that can never be solved. The map does not equal to the territory, and therefore when we try to navigate the territory on the basis of our limited perspective there is conflict, trouble that never goes away. Another way to express this idea would be to said that thinking (all rational thinking) boils down to the futile attempt to contain or enclose reality so that we have it ‘ totally sussed’. Philosopher Alan Watts says that this is like an eyeball that wants to see itself, or a tooth that wants to bite itself – I cannot define the universe because I am actually part of that universe. I am it!
We wouldn’t try to grab hold of reality in this way if we saw that reality was in fact boundless, and not something that we could isolate, but this is the one thing that we don’t seem to want to see. The idea that we can’t pin Truth down with our thoughts is just too radical for us. Even if we have spent sixty or seventy years trying unsuccessfully to nail it to the floor, we still don’t get it, our failure still doesn’t teach us anything. Undaunted, we continue to wear ourselves out in the never-ending attempt to carry out the impossible act. We never give up! This is the key characteristic of a ‘game’: a game repeats itself forever because the whole point about a game is that we have everything totally defined, and when everything it totally defined there is nowhere new to go…..
Should Things Really Be The Way I Think They Ought To Be?
It is clear that there is a very great difficulty here, an obstacle that makes escaping thought all but impossible. The difficulty is that we try to use thought to escape thought. Physicist David Bohm expressed the dilemma by saying that thinking is an all-pervasive system that cannot see beyond itself. Before we look at this idea of Bohm’s we will just summarize where we have got up to so far. The first thing we said is that we only think because we believe that thinking makes a difference. Basically, we want to ‘set things right’. Obviously, this implies that there is a feeling that things are not right at the moment, or that here is a danger or risk of them not being right. Another way to put this is to say that thinking is our attempt to enforce certainty, and it is driven by out underlying perception that the world we live in is an uncertain (or risky) place. The way to cut thinking off at its roots is, therefore, to realise that what we are trying to fix is, in fact, totally and utterly unfixable. What we are trying to do is impossible, it is like trying to build a skyscraper out of custard – no matter how much effort I put into it, it just can’t be done.
Perhaps, though, this knowledge is just not enough. Often it seems to me that I do have a good intellectual understanding of the impossibility of trying to put the world to rights by thinking about it – but I keep on trying anyway. From this we might deduce that, on one level, I can’t be totally convinced; there must still be a bit of me somewhere which is hanging on to a crumb of a belief that ‘maybe I can’t fix it’. Perhaps I understand it rationally, but somehow rationality isn’t enough; it’s still only in my head, I don’t feel the impossibility deep down in my bones. We can go one stage further in our analysis: even if I have realised that I am trying to do an impossible thing, perhaps I am still clinging to the idea that it ought not to be impossible. I think that reality ought not to be the way that it is. In other words, I have a deep-down belief that it is fundamentally not okay for stuff to be unfixed, risky and uncertain. This belief will in itself guarantee that I go on thinking. Until I see that way I am wanting (which is to say, 100% security) is not only impossible, but also laughably absurd, then I am never going to be free from my ongoing compulsive attempts to interfere with the running of the universe (or with the nature of reality).
If I could live in a world of 100% security, life would turn out be a grotesque nightmare. Imagine – I am living in a universe where stuff only gets to happen if and when I want it to happen. I have 100% control, in other words. That means (1) that stuff can only happen to me if I have previously decided that it can, and (2) that nothing can ever happen to me that I don’t already understand about. I can’t go beyond my concepts, in other words. This last point is especially important – it means that I would never encounter anything that wasn’t a faithful reflection of my ideas. I simply wouldn’t be in reality at all, just in my own head.
So, just to repeat this one more time, what we have here is a situation where everything is totally predictable, and where everything I encounter is nothing more than a reflection of my ideas about what ‘ought to be there’. I am living entirely within my own mind, it is all just a game in my head and I can never get out of it. This is a lot like being humoured – if everyone in your life reacted to you by saying only what they thought you wanted to hear, how would you feel? After a while, the chances are that you would feel as if you were living in your own private horror film. You would feel like screaming. Yet this is exactly what we are aiming at when we try to maximise control over our environment.
So How Do I Stop Thinking?
If we had a clear awareness of what we were really trying to do we would drop it in an instant. But this is where the ‘complicating factor’ comes in – just as long as we think about things, we can’t see them clearly. Either we think, or we see clearly. We can have one or the other, but not both. this is awkward, to say the least, because if my problem is that I can’t stop thinking, then this also means that I just can’t see clearly enough to know to drop thinking. It is like the joke about the man in a car who stops to ask a pedestrian for directions for a street. “No, no, no” comes the reply, “you don’t want to start off from here….” Krishnamurti used to perplex a lot of people with this type of answer. Invariably he would be questioned as to how one should free oneself from the mind:” Asking How? is the wrong way”, he would say, with unwavering patience, “How? delivers us back into the embrace of the mind; How? is the mind, forever trying to escape from itself…”
Facing The Inevitable
Going on what we have discussed so far, it could be said that the cure for thinking is the insight that what I am thinking about cannot be changed. Most of the situations that we get involved in seem to us to be susceptible to manipulation of one sort or another, we are so used to wangling stuff to make it be more like we would want it to be that it’s hard to turn the ‘urge to manipulate’ off. Every now and then, though, we come face to face with a situation that really cannot be altered. It is as times like this that we stand the best chance of dropping thinking. Finding out that you are shortly going to die is a good example of this sort of thing. If my doctor tells me I have two months to live, my first reaction is shock and disbelief; later on, perhaps, comes anger and the desperate attempt to bargain with fate, or God, so that it doesn’t have to happen. Not quite yet, anyway! When I have done with fighting the inevitable, then comes peace or acceptance – I don’t have to keep going over it in my mind, looking for an escape clause that I might have missed. I just don’t need to think about it anymore; after all – it is out of my hands.
The sort of peace that we are talking about here isn’t the peace of blankness, which comes because we refuse to think about what is going to happen. That would be mental manipulation, pure and simple. Denial is the last resort of the urge to manipulate, we change the inevitable by pretending it isn’t there. True peace of mind, on the other hand, is freedom – we are free from having to think about it because we know that it cannot change it. Instead, we unconditionally accept it. The example we are giving here is death, but what is true about death is also true about life – life is also, in a very fundamental sense, out of our hands. As David Bowie says: “It has nothing to do with you, if you can grasp it…”
With thinking we can, at best, swap a (YES) for a (No). However, since (YES) and (NO) are but two sides of the same coin, all we are doing is flipping that coin over. We are not getting rid of it. As we have said, it is not possible for the thinking to go beyond itself – we cannot get rid of thought by manipulation, since it is thought itself that does the manipulating. All we can do is cause trivial change within that given structure, which is to say, we can only reshuffle a set of limited possibilities. David Bohm’s approach is to say that thought is a system. This idea is less obvious than it may at first appear, though. The system is all around us, and yet it is not recognized as such. not just thought, but everything that thought does, is the system. my memories are the system, and so are my hopes and fears. My perceptions are the system, because it is thought that organizes what I see. The system is ‘the map’; it is the grid-reference I use to make reality meaningful to me. All my experiences take place within this map, otherwise they would not be comprehensible to me, or communicable to others, who are also the system. My triumphs are the system, as are my failures. Even my ‘escapes’ from the system are still the system! As David Bohm says, when the system imagines what is outside itself, that is just the system simulating (or projecting) its ideas of ‘not-system’ within its own terms. What else can it do, after all?
Just Who Do You Think You Are?
I, as I know myself, am the system. As a knowable, describable, specifiable, verifiable ‘self’ – I am the system. I am thought’s simulation, thought’s creation. I am a game played on thought’s virtual reality system, nothing more. So if I want to keep on being this fictional entity (out of fear of the unknown), then there is no possibility of me ever finding peace of mind. The game does not contain the possibility of connecting with reality, because if it did it wouldn’t be the game anymore. The game would then evaporate in a puff of smoke, the game would then be over… The system does not contain the possibility of peace or happiness. it only contains the possibility of conditional peace, and conditional happiness – it only contains dependency, in other words. There is only happiness or peace of mind when I drop the made-up story of who I am, and experience the undefined Self, the Self which has nothing whatsoever to do with the system, the Self that is beyond thought.
Thought’s function is primarily to maintain itself, it can know nothing else but this. Even when thought tries to commit suicide, this is still self-maintenance because the idea of ‘suicide’, like the idea of ‘nothingness’, and the idea of ‘escape’, are all projections of the system, projections of itself. The system can never get away from itself – it follows itself in everything it does! All purposeful, goal-orientated behaviour is self-maintenance. and if I am not what I think I am, then what exactly is this self-maintenance business? As Wei Wu Wei says; “What is your problem? Mistaken identity“. This explains why we are so reluctant to give up our constant thinking, even when it gives us nothing but pain – thinking helps us maintain and prop up this fundamentally mistaken idea of our identity. Unconsciously, we fear that if we stop thinking then we will stop existing! Thinking is of course a way of hanging on to something, and the reason that thinking is always going to be both frustrating and anxiety-provoking is because the ‘thing’ we are hanging onto just isn’t there in the first place….
The idea that the simulation of reality (which is what thinking is) is essentially unnecessary is not a very pleasant one if we are identified with that simulation – there is no way for thought to see this in a positive light! Thought does not like to perceive its own unreality. Once we do go beyond the system, however, there is not the ‘non-existence’ that we feared. Instead, there is surprise and recognition – we realize that the thinker who was full of fear at the thought of not existing anymore, never existed in the first place. There is no ‘me’ to lose. This is simply because I am not who I think I am, and therefore when I go beyond thought I discover that I am not the limited and constantly threatened ‘idea of myself’ – the notion of myself that was constructed by the system. This discovery is an unprecedented one: I am not less than I thought I was, I am infinitely MORE than I thought I was.
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.