There is a curious, more-or-less invisible barrier between the life we live and our actual experience of it. This barrier, despite the fact that we generally don’t even know that it is there, causes no end of problems for us – one way or another. The problems that the invisible barrier causes for us are the sort of problems that we might expect from something that comes between us and life – for example, a feeling of being cut off or disconnected, of being somehow outside life, or remote from it. This can generate a feeling of being bored, or of being isolated in a frustratingly sterile sort of a way, and it can also give rise to feelings of meaninglessness and depression. Being ‘cut off’ from life removes us from the source of our well-being, which is not our thoughts about life, but life itself.
Indecisiveness might be another problem because we find ourselves trapped in the space between ‘thinking about doing it’ and ‘doing it’ – eternally reluctant to commit ourselves because we don’t really have any feeling for what the right thing to do is. I can rationally calculate all the possibilities – but I know damn well at the same time that I could just as well calculate it another way and then it would all come out differently. So what exactly is the ‘right course of action’? The problem here is that I am relying far too much on rational analysis (which is fundamentally disconnected) and have as a result cut myself off from my intuition and any chance of spontaneous insight. Anxiety is another consequence of being disconnected from the flow of things. In this case, I am afraid to trust the process – I want to be in control, I want to be in charge of what happens, I want to ‘one up’ on the whole thing so that I can’t get taken by surprise. The attempt to be ‘one-up’ on life means that I am always anticipating, and by trying to anticipate what is going to happen I remove myself from the flow of events, and trap myself in a fundamentally disconnected (or ‘abstracted’) position. Nothing happens naturally – it is all forced and jolting and there is always the unpleasant feeling that something is going to happen that I don’t want to happen. Basically, I am ‘fighting and struggling and scheming’ every inch of the way, and this leaves me no time to actually enjoy the ride. Quite the contrary – I have an awful time of it; instead of gracefully partaking in the flow of things, I am gracelessly and awkwardly jolted along, constantly on the defensive, constantly on the look out for trouble. And the whole time I know perfectly well that this is not the way life was ‘meant to be’.
THE RATIONAL-CONCEPTUAL MIND
So what exactly is this more-or-less invisible barrier that we are talking about? One way to explain it is to say that the barrier is my way of understanding what is happening to me, which is to say, it is my rational-conceptual mind. This is not to say that the rational mind is necessarily a ‘bad thing’ – if I knew that I was perceiving the world through my reasoning and through my conceptualising then this would not constitute an invisible barrier. However, the point is that I do not realize that this is what I am doing. In my normal day-to-day interaction with the world it seems as if I am interacting directly, without a middleman, without an intermediary – I feel as if I am seeing the world, but what I am actually doing is observing the world through a rational filter, without realising that there is a filter there.
The filter means that stuff which agrees with my underlying assumptions, my ‘picture of the world’, is let through, whilst stuff that does not agree with my assumptions, stuff that does not agree with my ‘cognitive prejudices’, is not let through. I am being a fed a doctoring version of reality, and I don’t notice the difference. The barrier between myself and reality is therefore a function of the assumptions I have made about reality without ever acknowledging them in any way. In other words, I come to certain conclusions, and then continue on this basis, but I don’t realize that I am acting on these conclusions because I have forgotten that I ever made them in the first place!
SERVING THE MIND OF THE PAST
So what we are saying is that it is my old, ‘automatic’ (or ‘unquestioned’) way of understanding and interacting with the world around me that creates the barrier. Krishnamurti says that the mind is always old, and this is what he means – it is something that we bring with us wherever we go, without realizing that we are actually bringing anything with us. A very odd (and somewhat sinister) thing happens with this ‘mind of the past’: somehow, its integrity, its well-being, becomes more important than everything else and we end up paying a very high price to maintain it. The reason this ‘inversion’ of priorities takes place is simply because I identify myself with my ‘idea of myself’, and so I protect my mental image of myself as if it were really who I am. (This, incidentally, is what Krishnamurti calls the ‘self image’.)
We end up suffering a lot over the self-image – we anguish over any insult that it receives, and we dread anything happening that might put it under strain. In a nutshell, its likes and dislikes become our likes and dislikes. It may seem like a remarkable statement, but the truth is that there could never be any such thing as anxiety, if it were not for our unacknowledged allegiance to the false self (the self image). It goes without saying that when I am anxious, I am not worried about my true self (i.e. ‘who I really am’) – how can I be, when I don’t have any knowledge or experience of this ‘true self’? All I know about is the mental image of myself that interposes itself between my perception of reality, and the reality that I would be perceiving if it were not for the mental image that obscures it.
The self-image creates anxiety by the bucket-load, by the lorry-load in fact, because it is very brittle, very insecure, and very easily threatened. It is easy to see why this should be – after all, the self image is dependent for its existence on me seeing the world in the particular narrow way that I do. We can actually go so far as to say that the self-image is really the same thing as ‘the way that I have of thinking about the world’, it is the same thing as ‘the mind of the past’, which is in its ultimate essence no more than a dead echo that is endlessly carried forward day after day, month after month, year after year. What ensures that it gets ‘carried forward’ in this way is basically fear – fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of the new. This is what fear is all about, it is all about having to let go of what we know and feel comfortable with, and face what lies outside the ‘comfort bubble of the known’.
THE HABIT THAT IS ‘ME’
Of course, we could also say that fear has to do with our thoughts about death, our thoughts about personal annihilation or personal ‘non-existence’. But this is just another way of saying that fear is about ‘radical change’, because what is the end of the self (or rather, the end of the mind-created self-image) other than the most radical change of all? In anxiety what we are protecting (if only we knew it) is our way of thinking. I feel very much as if it were me that is being threatened, and of course it is, but what I rarely get to understand is that this all-important ‘me’ is a construct of what David Bohm calls ‘the System of Thought’. What we are saying here therefore is that what anxiety is really all about is the survival of ‘the mind of the past’, that shadowy echo that get unfailingly transmitted day to day, month to month, year to year, for no real purpose at all…
What we have been calling ‘the mind of the past’ is exactly the same thing as a habit – it is a habit of thinking, which creates a habit of behaviour, i.e. a predictable pattern of seeing the world and interacting accordingly. Why do habits persist as tenaciously as they do, and propagate themselves year after year, getting stronger and heavier and less easy to drop all the time? The answer is obviously, for no reason at all! Habits carry in the same way that they always do because that is what habits are – they are pointless, entirely redundant patterns of behaviour that persist purely because of their own dead momentum. Of course, if we were keenly aware of this fact, that would be a very painful thing – we would be acutely aware of how we are driven for the most part by senseless external compulsions, and if one thing is for sure it is that such an awareness would not be a pleasant one. Who wants to discover that they are a machine made up of habits?
IDENTIFYING WITH A COMPULSION
We get around that painful awareness by identifying with the compulsion in question, which is to say, by saying “This isn’t an external compulsion, this is what I myself want…” When I do this I create the illusion of free will, the illusion of freedom. This comfortable illusion is what John Bennett calls ‘negative freedom’, which can be defined as ‘the freedom not to see that I have no freedom’.
When I am under the influence of a compulsion that wants me to do a certain thing, and things don’t go the way that ‘I’ want them to, then I feel bad – I feel frustrated, vexed, infuriated, anguished. If things threaten to go seriously wrong, then I experience anxiety or perhaps despair. No matter what sort of ‘negativity’ I am feeling at the time, the effect is the same – I feel pressurized to do whatever the compulsion wants me to do, and terrified of what might happen if I can’t ‘obey the compulsion’. I don’t realize that this has nothing to do with my free will, that it is all to do with the agenda of the compulsion, the agenda of the ‘way of thinking about things’ that is secretly controlling and conditioning my awareness. I don’t realize that I am being driven by my conditioning, my programming, my beliefs. This is why I suffer as much as I do, because I am identified with this particular narrow way of looking at the world, so that what seems ‘bad’ to the narrow, self-interested viewpoint seems to be universally bad, absolutely bad.
Actually, the way that I think things should be, has nothing to do at all with anything, other than the habit of thinking that says they should be such a way. What stresses me out is ‘me trying to impose the pattern of my thinking on reality’ when reality has nothing to do with that rigid and redundant way of thinking. This is very obvious when we stop to consider the matter carefully, but of course the whole problem is that we don’t stop. This is not an abstract philosophical idea that we are talking about here, but a very basic, very practical principle. For example, just take any normal everyday situation – I am getting along with my business (whatever that might be) and some sort of difficulty comes up. Things don’t fall into line quite as I had hoped – events go against me. What is happening here is as simple and as straightforward as can be: I have a plan, and reality cannot be persuaded to accommodate itself to my plan, I have a goal in mind, but I can’t seem to get that goal to happen the way I want it to happen…
The usual effect of being thwarted in this way is that I get vexed, and annoyed, and frustrated. The failure of things to pan out the way I want them to pan out acts as a red rag to a bull, it is sheer provocation and the result of this provocation is that I start to take it all rather personally – I get a bee in my bonnet about the whole thing and instead of easing off, I engage even more in the task. What this means is that it all starts to get even more important to me and so the significance of the thing gets blown out of all proportion. This is one way that I tend to react to vexation – by becoming obsessed (so to speak) with overcoming the vexation, and trying harder and harder to fix it. This is ‘external fixing’. But often things happen to me that I didn’t want to happen, and there is no chance at all of me (externally) fixing what has just happened. For example, I miss the bus, or I break a china plate, or you say something to me that hurts my feelings, or I discover that the hotel were I was planning to stay the night has no vacancies. In cases such as these I can do nothing externally, but that doesn’t stop me obsessing and fretting and complaining about it. Even though I cannot obtain the satisfaction of correcting the actual situation, I can ‘correct it internally’ by saying that it never should have happened, or blaming myself (or the life in general) for letting it happen. If my feelings have been hurt by something someone has said, then I say to myself that they were unjustified or downright cruel to say the rotten thing that they said. This ‘complaining’ gives me a feeling of satisfaction, albeit a rather hollow one.
Either way (either externally or internally) it is the same – I have completely identified with the compulsion to ‘fix the situation’, and as a result of being ‘passively identified’ in this way it seems as if the whole of my well-being is tied up with ‘me solving the problem’, ‘me having the last word’, ‘me being in the right’. My happiness, my peace of mind, my everything depends on a ‘successful outcome’ and so naturally I never even consider the alternative, which is giving up the struggle to have things be the way I want them to be. In fact there is a principle of ‘perspective loss’ operating here which means that the harder I try to fix the problem, the more important it seems to me that the problem really is a problem, and that it really needs to be fixed. Or to put it another way, the more I get sucked into trying to resolve the issue (and get things to be the way I want them to be), the more self-evident it is (to me) that the way I want them to be is ‘the right way’.
QUESTIONING MY REACTIONS
But this is of course an utter absurdity. What do I mean by ‘the right way’? Who said that such and such is ‘the right way’? As soon as I consider the matter for a moment or two (which of course I can’t do if I am caught up in trying to fix the so-called ‘problem’) I can see that what looks like the ‘right’ way only seems ‘right’ because it reflects whatever arbitrary prejudice is enshrined in my thinking. In other words, I have assumed that such-and-such is the right way for things to be, and because I never question that assumption, I have the illusion that the assumption actually means something, that it represents a ‘valid point of view’.
The truth of the matter is always that what I want, and how I think things ought to be, only represents the particular narrow way of understanding the world that I have. It is only ‘the mind of the past’ trying to protect itself, trying to maintain itself, just as it always (and quite automatically) tries to do. There is no intelligence, no sense, no ‘consciousness’ in this automatic self-defending, it just happens all by itself, as a reflex of the ‘system of thought’. What is worse (worse than it being automatic or ‘mechanical’) is the fact that the reactions of the habit-that-is-me don’t actually help things at all, but rather they make them a hundred times worse. The automatic reacting is in fact the very root of all my troubles – it is the invisible barrier that comes between me and life.
NOT ACTING OUT OF NEED
It is not at all easy to see the redundancy of ‘the mind of the past’, and the pernicious, harmful nature of its automatic or unreflective ‘self-defending’. If I don’t act strongly, decisively, and above all successfully, what chance do I have in this competitive world? The approach that we have been discussing may sound fine in one way, but surely I can’t go through life without ‘fixing’? Suppose we are watching TV and the fire threatens to go out, am I supposed to leave it be, and simply get cold? Or if a light bulb blows, should I leave the room in the dark? Or if my car breaks down, should I not have a look under the bonnet to see what the problem might be?
These are good questions, and there is an answer to them. What we are talking about is not ceasing to act at all in the world, we are just talking about ceasing to act compulsively (or ‘automatically’). When I act as a result of a compulsion what I am essentially doing is acting out of fear – I am basically acting out of desperation, even though I may not always see it as such. When we see someone acting out of desperation, out of ‘blind, compulsive need’, we know straightaway that this is not an effective response to the situation. When I act out of need I am wrong-footed right from the word ‘go’, which is why in the eastern schools of martial arts it is always said that ‘effective action arises out of stillness’.
Stillness means having a quiet mind, which is a mind that is not full of preconceptions, plans and expectations. ‘Expectations’ means ‘putting all your money on a particular possibility that you already know about’. It means the known, in other words, and ‘the known’ is the invisible barrier between myself and reality that we have been talking about all along. We could also say that a mind without expectations is a mind that exists wholly in the present moment, ready for anything, open to whatever might occur, but not creating any images or pictures about ‘what might occur’. This is a mind that is ‘as new as the moment in which it exists’ (in fact the ‘new mind’ and the ‘now’ in which it exists are one and the same thing because there is no separation between them).
When I am a slave to compulsion, then my mind is full of hope and fear, the one vying against with the other. Both hope and fear have the effect of pulling me into anticipatory mental activity, which then preoccupies me so much that I no longer have any time to see what is actually happening. I am sucked helplessly into my mental projections; I am wholly preoccupied by ‘the known’, which excludes the possibility of me paying attention to what is actually happening right now (which is ‘the unknown’ or ‘the uncertain’ or ‘the new’). Basically, my hopeful and fearful thoughts drive out reality – they replace reality, and I am left ‘high and dry’, isolated behind the invisible barrier of my rational-analytic mind, fundamentally disconnected from reality.
THE ‘LITTLE PICTURE’ AND THE ‘BIG PICTURE’
A neat way to understand everything that we have been talking about is to use the idea of the ‘little picture versus the Big Picture’. The little picture is what we are trapped in when we are caught up in issues, or problems, or worries (i.e. when we are caught up in our thinking). It is, as we all know very well, compulsive and claustrophobic by its very nature, and the only way that we seem to have to lessen the acute discomfort of the compulsiveness is to do what the compulsion wants us to do (or at least to try to). The compulsion causes us to believe that we have to ‘win out within the terms of the game that has been forced upon us’; ‘not playing’ the game does not seem to be an option.
The Big Picture is the infinitely larger, supremely ‘impersonal’ world that we see all around us (and see ourselves to be a part of) when we are not eaten up by personal issues, problems, worries etc. We all know this serene and imperturbably majestic world of course, but the point is that we forget it in a flash when we get sucked up into the ‘little picture’ of our petty, all consuming concerns and worries. If we could remember the timeless oceanic beauty of the Big Picture, our situation would not seem as bad (i.e. as compulsive) as it does seem when we get stuck in the claustrophobic closed-in zero-perspective world of the little picture.
But if ‘life as portrayed by the little picture’ is so rotten, and has so little to recommend it, then how come we seem to spend most of our time there? Why do we keep coming back for more, so to speak? One simple answer to this question is to say that we are tricked to do so, because of the way in which the little picture effectively substitutes itself for the Big Picture, and causes us to assume that it is ‘all there is’. Essentially, the compulsiveness of the little picture causes us to forget the Big Picture, it makes us forget what life is really all about, and get hung up on unreal issues. Another way of looking at this ‘substitution’ process is to say that it happens because the little picture possesses a form of virtual spaciousness that replaces the real thing (i.e. genuine spaciousness) without our realizing that a switch has been pulled.
The phenomenon of virtual spaciousness occurs because of the way in which the little picture appears to offer us somewhere to run to (which is to say, it occurs because of the way in which it seems to offer us the possibility of a resolution to our problems). This is a clever kind of a trick when it comes down to it: the sense of compulsiveness drives us to seek some sort of a resolution to the issue that is bugging us, and at the same time as making us feel that we ‘have to do something’ it offers us the possibility of a realizable goal that we can strive to obtain. It provokes us to run, and at the same time it offers us ‘somewhere to run to’.
However, the goals that we go running towards are no more than mirages really because either they keep receding away from us the whole time (like the goal of ‘100% security’ that we crave in anxiety or the goal of ‘100% correctness’ that we strive for in perfectionism), or they vanish away again the moment we achieve them, causing us to go right back to square one and ‘start all over again’. Addictions are an example of this – I get a craving for the drug, I take it and momentarily obtain relief and satisfaction, then before I know it the high has worn off and I have to start the cycle all over again. The cycle goes on forever, and the point is that it doesn’t actually get anywhere – which is of course the key feature of any sort of cycle. The gap between ‘me’ and ‘the goal that I want to obtain’ is what we are calling virtual space (it is also what Krishnamurti calls ‘psychological time’).
YOU CAN’T RUN AWAY FROM RUNNING AWAY…
The reason we use the word ‘virtual’ here is because what we are talking about is essentially a treadmill which goes around and around without getting anywhere, despite the periodic illusion that we are getting somewhere. So for example, if I am afraid and I am chasing the goal of ‘not being afraid’, then Krishnamurti would say that the gap between the situation of ‘being afraid’ and the goal of ‘not being afraid’ is psychological time – the gap is the road to an illusory goal and we like it because it offers us a period of relief from our need (our fear in this case). The goal in question is most definitely illusory (or ‘unreal’) because if I am afraid, and I try to run away from my fear, the fear is of course going to follow behind me all the way. It is impossible to successfully run away from fear because fear is running. When I imagine that it is possible to run away from fear however this little bit of self-deception provides me with momentary comfort and so I am more than happy not to see the truth. But because the goal is illusory (i.e. impossible), so too is the road towards it illusory and that is why we speak of ‘virtual space’.
RUNNING FROM PAIN
Another example of this kind of thing (just to make it a bit clearer) is the idea of ‘drinking to forget’ – suppose that I have some type of pain buried deep down in my subconscious somewhere and that I drink in order to help keep it safely buried. The goal that I am ‘running to’ is the goal of forgetting – obviously – and in a way it seems as if this is an attainable goal. But really it isn’t attainable at all because I am right back to square one again the next morning and I have to start all over again. Really whole thing is a revolving wheel: the first half of the cycle is where I seem to be successfully forgetting (this is the [+] phase), but then the second half of the cycle (the [-] phase) brings me back to where I started off from, and so the overall progress is zero. I keep on running on the tread-mill of avoidance because I think that it actually is possible to successfully avoid, but the journey I am on is of the circular variety, and a circular journey is no journey at all…
PLAYING ‘THE GAME’
A journey that is circular but appears to be non-circular when I am on it (a trip to nowhere that appears to be actually going somewhere at the time) is a virtual journey, and the virtual journey takes place (of course) in virtual space, which is what we are saying the ‘little picture’ is all about. All neurotic behaviour takes place in virtual space, which is why neurosis is so gratingly pointless and frustrating. All neurosis involves the desperate attempt to attain a goal that is actually (if the truth were to be known) quite unattainable. All neurosis is in fact a game of ‘pain avoidance’ – we play it to momentarily gain the comforting illusion that we can escape whatever pain it is that we want to avoid, but in reality all we are doing is playing an indefinite game of ‘postponing the inevitable’.
THE VIRTUAL JOURNEY OF ‘LOOKING FOR THE SAFE PLACE’
Anxiety is a perfect example of this – when I am anxious my unattainable goal is to find a safe place, a place where I can feel secure. The game I am playing is the same as ‘pain avoidance’, only in this case it is ‘fear avoidance’ (or ‘risk-avoidance’, which is the same thing). What happens in the game of fear-avoidance is that I comfort myself with the illusion that I can find a safe place to hide, a place where the fear isn’t. Sometimes I do seem to find such a hiding place, but the relief is only momentary because before very long the fear has found me again and I have to start running all over again, hunting for a new, improved place to hide. The hiding place can be in the external world, or it can be in my thoughts – it makes no difference which way I avoid since the principle is the same in both cases.
It may happen that I am anxious all the time, so that I never seem to be able to find a place where there is no fear. What happens here is that I gain momentary comfort (or momentary relief) in the belief that I might be able to successfully avoid the fear. This means that I engage in some sort of ‘fixing behaviour’, either of the internal or external variety, and for a brief period I can fool myself that I am actually getting somewhere. Worrying is the classic example of this sort of ‘virtual’ (i.e. internal) fixing behaviour – a worry-type thought is at root an attempt to think of a way out of a difficulty and such thoughts always have a positive phase and a negative phase. All neurotic activity is like this. When I start with the thought this is the positive (or ‘hopeful’) phase, because for a fleeting moment I allow myself to belief that this thought might actually represent a ‘way out’. Almost straightaway however the hope turns into despair as I go into the negative phase of the thought, and then all that it left for me is to think of some other possible way out, and then of course the cycle starts up all over again.
When I am ‘worrying’ what is happening is that I am doing this over and over again, trying to find a ‘way out’ when in fact there is none. I only have a limited repertory of thoughts, and so what happens next (as we all know from experience) is that I just keep going around the same limited ideas over and over again. I keep covering the same old ground, and even though I know very well that if it didn’t get me anywhere the first few thousand times I went through it all, it certainly is going to help me to go through it all over gain. However, the thing is that I just can’t help doing it. This is worry in a nutshell – I know it’s all pointless, but I can’t seem to help myself.
WHEN THE SHOE PINCHES
It is important to realize that we are not saying that neuroticism is the same thing as ‘being trapped the little picture’. What we are saying is that that neuroticism (what people call ‘neurotic mental illness’ is when we start to become painfully aware that we are trapped in the little picture. The everyday mind in which we spend so much of our life is far from being reality, in all its unfettered glory – we do not usually live as poets or mystics, constantly mindful and appreciative of the daily miracle that is life, on the contrary, most of our time is spend pursuing humdrum goals as if they were the only thing that mattered. Of course, there will always be humdrum goals to be concerned with just as long as we continue to draw breath, but the crucial point is that it is not necessary for us to assume that these concerns are ‘the only thing that matters’. The details only matter in relationship to the whole, but the way things usually work if for the details to mater so much that we forget the whole. This is like the difference between ‘living to work’, rather than ‘working to live’.
Therefore, the everyday mind is just as much a treadmill as neuroticism, but it is much bigger and plusher and gaudier and much better ‘padded’ with entertainments, distractions and diversions, so that we rarely gain the insight needed to see that we are travelling in circles. This means that negative freedom works to its maximum efficiency in normal rational life, and as a consequence we do not see that the virtual space within which we enact our lives is in fact purely ‘virtual’. The thing about neurosis however, is that the shoe starts to pinch and so we become more aware of our invisible constraints. Negative freedom is wearing thing, holes are appearing in it and we can’t help knowing that ‘everything is not as it should be’.
THE ESSENTIAL ‘HEALTHINESS’ OF NEUROSIS
We start to see the invisible presence of the rational mind, which shows itself in all the thwarted shoulds, oughts, musts and mustn’ts, we see it in the vexations and worries that come up all the time. If a ‘must’ is fulfilled smoothly, it is of course invisible like an itch that I can scratch successfully, but if a must is thwarted, then its stands out painfully, like an itch that I cannot scratch. When the orbit of our lives gets too narrow, too rigid, then we start to notice that we are going around in a tight merry-go-round – we start to notice that our lives are proceeding in sterile and frustrating circles. This awareness is unpalatable and profoundly uncomfortable, and for this reason it is labelled as ‘an illness of the mind’. Yet it is the rational mind itself that is the ‘illness’, and neurosis is the healthy process by which we become aware of the illness.
The process of neurosis ensures that we can no longer tolerate the type of life that we were until now successfully tolerating. What is unhealthy, after all, the ability to tolerate an intolerable state of affairs, of the eroding of that ability to tolerate an intolerable state of affairs? As Carl Jung noted over fifty years ago, the function of a neurosis is to return us to the psychic wholeness from which we have been so long estranged, and so rather than trying to ‘squash’ the symptoms of neurosis at all costs (which would be true madness) we would be better advised to heed the message that neurosis gives us, and change our lives accordingly.
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.