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Conscious Frustration

The most basic way of explaining the difference between psychological work and what we usually call ‘work’ is to say that whilst normal everyday work is work that is done for a purpose, psychological work is work that is down for no purpose at all. Both can be hard enough, but there remains this key difference. This actually explains why we spend so little time engaging in psychological work – why on earth would we put ourselves out, and do something hard, if there is no logical rationale at all behind what we are doing? Why would we undergo serious difficulty if there is no defined goal, no defined ‘benefit’ to obtain as the result of this difficulty?



Obviously, however, there must be something useful about psychological work, even if we can’t rationalize or define what that usefulness is. Otherwise we wouldn’t bother talking about it in the first place – we wouldn’t bother going to the trouble of trying to explain it! A good way to understand what we are getting at with the idea of psychological work is to say that it involves ‘going beyond our own pattern’. Each one of us has a specific pattern of perceiving the world, thinking about the world, and interacting with the world, and this pattern is a kind of invisible tyrant that rules our lives. Psychological work is how we overthrow this tyrant.



Of course, I might like my pattern, I might feel perfectly satisfied with it and think that it is fine (I might even think that it is the ‘right’ pattern!), but this does not alter the fact that I am not actually free to change it, even if I wanted to very badly. This in fact goes a long way to explain why I might claim to myself to be so satisfied with ‘the way thing are’ – after all, if I admitted that I didn’t feel so good about it then this would bring me face-to-face with my own powerlessness and there would be no comfort in that at all. That, as Jung says, would constitute an awareness of inner ‘conflict’ and this awareness would put an end to the comfortable and undemanding state of complacency that I exist in. Generally speaking, as long as my pattern of perceiving, thinking and behaving does not bring me too much pain, I am happy to go along with it.




There is a kind of illusion that goes with this ‘automatic identification with my pattern’ – because I am able to make choices between this and that, I assume that I am a free agent, and so everything seems okay. What I very rarely see (and actually don’t want to see at all) is that I can only ever choose between known alternatives. After all, if I have a goal, and I select (or choose) that goal, then I have in fact chosen a possibility that I already know about. Now the reason this is an important point is because the ‘pattern’ we have been talking about can best be described in ‘mental’ terms, i.e. as a mental map of all the things that we know to be possible. David Bohm calls this ‘the system of thought’ – which is basically the logically coherent pattern of thinking about the world that we have in our heads. Obviously any actions that I take on the basis of the system of thought (i.e. on the basis of my rational understanding) are not going to take me beyond the system of thought. These actions are the system of thought.



This explains why work that we do for a reason or for a purpose cannot be psychological work – whatever ‘reason’ or ‘purpose’ I have for doing whatever it is that I am doing, is no more than the system of thought in disguise. The ‘system of thought’, as we have said, is really just a fancy way of talking about my pattern, and so we can see that normal everyday regular work is work that is carried out for the benefit of my pattern. I am working for my pattern and so there is obviously no way that the pattern is going to work to get rid of its own self!  In addition, to be strictly accurate, we ought to point out that the ‘ownership’ works the other way – the pattern does not belong to me, I belong to it.




We can see from this discussion that when we talk about psychological work we are really talking about a way of becoming free. Normally freedom is just another mental category in my head, just another idea, and I take it for granted that I can choose to be free, that I can make a goal of ‘being free’. This is part of the web of illusion that is spun by the system of thought, because as we have already said the idea that we can choose to be free from our pattern of thinking is pure nonsense. It is laughably absurd that I can use my pattern of thinking to go beyond my pattern of thinking – I cannot, and in fact the harder I try the more deeply enmeshed and ensnared in the system of thought I become. There is all the same a way to be free, but this way has nothing whatsoever to do with the way which we have of rationally understanding the world and our place in it.




The first thing that is necessary is for me to understand my prison and this in itself is a very hard thing to do. A normal everyday prison is an easy thing to understand – here I am on the inside of it, and there are high walls and locked doors and iron bars across the windows to keep me in. There are prison officers to keep an eye on me, and there are guards to watch the perimeter fences who are well-equipped with flood lamps, machine guns and trained Alsatians to hunt down anyone who does get past. This sort of prison is easy to understand but hard to get out of (although it is possible for those that are determined enough). The sort of prison we are talking about is different – it is invisible, we can’t touch the bars and we can’t see the prison guards. We can explain this invisible prison quite simply by saying that it is ‘everything we think, and everything we do’. The prison is our particular way of perceiving reality, our particular way of thinking, and our particular pattern of behaviour.



Wherever I choose to be, that is another wing of my prison, and so obviously wherever I go I bring my prison with me. Once I understand the subtle nature of the prison of the rational mind, then I am a big step closer to escaping from it. The key to escaping from the rational mind is very simple – all I have to do is to is to be somewhere without choosing to be there. But this is of course a bit of a tricky thing to do – how can I get to be in a place without first choosing to be there? How can I be somewhere accidentally? The very thought of ‘trying to be somewhere by accident’ ties me up in knots. It is in fact the ultimate ‘double-bind’.




There is a way to transcend this double-bind however, and that way has to do with the idea that we are very rarely exactly where we want to be. This fact is what helps us escape the rational mind. We are all very goal orientated, and what this means in practice is that we are always trying to improve our situation. I have certain preferences about the way things should be, and I am always trying to ‘close the gap’ between the way things are and the way I want things to be. There are two ways to look at this. One way has to do with the outer world. For example, let us say that I am going somewhere. I am going somewhere because I am not where I want to be, and I am trying to change things so that I am where I want to be. Perhaps it is 8:00 in the morning and I am on my way to work – that is my goal, that is the place that I am interested in being in. But whilst I am in the process of going to work, then clearly I am ‘not where I want to be’. Therefore, if I pay 100% attention to the present moment whilst I am on my journey to work (instead of being preoccupied with where I am wanting to be), then I have escaped from the prison of the rational mind. Similarly, suppose that I am in a queue in the supermarket – this is the last place I want to be. What use is it to be here? I want to be at the check-out. And then, I want to be in my car, going home. And then, I want to be back at home. And then…



I am constantly preoccupied with ‘what I want’, I am constantly chasing my own mental projections, constantly imprisoning myself in my wretched ideas of where I think is a good place to be. In this state of habitual distraction I am thoroughly unused to appreciating the choiceless reality of where I am, which is the one place where I am free. The ironic thing is that I pass by freedom every day, but in my hurry to improve my situation, and ‘benefit myself’ I never pay it the slightest heed!




The other way of looking at this idea of ‘compulsive optimization’ is to think in terms of the inner world rather than the outer world. It is a fact that most of my time is spent in mental states which are not what I would consider ‘optimally desirable’.  If I am feeling lonely, or sad, or bored, or ashamed, or angry, then these are states of mind that I do not want to be in. Even when I don’t find myself in a state of mind that is actively ‘bad’ or painful, I am still dissatisfied and constantly distracting myself with thoughts and fantasies of ‘something better’. This is human nature – this is what we all do!



The ‘almost inevitable rule’ is that when we find ourselves in unwanted states of mind (which is most of the time) we become preoccupied with changing these states of mind. We become fixated on the idea of change, which means that we put all our attention on the idea of being elsewhere.  We are trying to ‘push away’ from where we are and ‘attract ourselves’ to where we want to be. We are in the state of ‘yearning’ or ‘desiring’ or ‘wanting’ in other words, and what this means is that we are living in our goal of ‘escaping from where we are’, rather than living in the place where we actually are.



Again, this fact is very helpful to me, because it shows me something crucially important. It shows me [1] that when I am in the state of desire or yearning I am wholly absorbed in my idea of where I think the right place for me to be is (which means that I am firmly within the bounds of the prison of my rational, goal-orientated mind) and it shows me [2] that the very fact that I am in the state of desire means that I am where I didn’t plan to be. Now if I can just recover enough basic mindfulness to see that actually I am not in the place that I so desperately want to be in (which is my mental projection of how I would like to be), then this means that I am acknowledging being in a place where I don’t want to be (which is reality). As soon as I get enough basic insight to realize that my idea of changing my situation is unreal, that it is an unreal projection of my mind, and that actually I am in a place that I didn’t choose to be in, then I have done the very thing that we have been talking about all along – I am being somewhere quite choiceless. I have escaped from the prison that seemed so impregnable!



Of course, once we get to grips with this principle of ‘having the insight to see that my idea of where I am (or my idea of where I want to be) is not the same as where I actually am’ then it becomes easier to see that we are never where we choose to be! The truth is that everywhere we are is ‘choiceless’ – we never ever left the realm of choicelessness, not even for a second, in our whole lives. The secret is that we were free all along, and we never ever knew it. Freedom was all around me, but I was too busy enacting the ‘prison of my mind’ to notice that it was there. I was so engrossed in trying to ‘benefit myself’ that I never saw the blessing that was mine all along.




But just because we were ‘free all along’ that doesn’t mean that we weren’t also in prison the whole time. Serving a life sentence with no hope of remission or parole or compassionate leave. We are all ‘lifers’ when it comes down to it and the process of escaping the prison of the mind is a very slow and difficult one. The problem is that we are generally controlled by an automatic process of ‘reacting’. What this means is that when I feel bad (when I feel pain or fear or shame etc) I automatically react to escape from this feeling. I can’t seem to help it, the reacting process is so quick and so automatic that there appears to be nothing that I can do about it. So when I am in an ‘undesirable’ or ‘boring’ state of mind, I might remember for a moment to pay attention, and consciously ‘be there’, but before very long I will become distracted again – I will succumb to the automatic tendency (or compulsion) to fly off somewhere else, somewhere where ‘things are better or more interesting’. I find it all but impossible to find the motivation (or moral) to stay with it.



If nothing much seems to be happening then I want to look elsewhere. If I feel dull, or drab, or down in anyway, then I want relief. If there is fear, then I react, and if I am hurt then I react. It is ‘react, react, react’ all the way. This, along with the overwhelming difficulty of remembering to see things in this way at all, goes to create a profound feeling of discouragement. It is all too easy to lose interest in the whole thing. The fact is that you do not escape from the prison of the rational mind on a whim, or as a sort of a ‘wheeze’ such as – “I know, let’s escape from the prison of the mind…” This sort of attitude does not cut the bacon.




We can draw a valid parallel with the business of escaping from the physical prison of which we spoke earlier. Such a prison is, as we said, very hard indeed to escape from. After all, that is precisely what it is designed to be – it is designed specifically to be ‘a very hard place to escape from’. That’s what makes it a prison. But if you are really serious about escaping (if it isn’t just another whim) then it is possible. A person who is genuinely serious about escaping from prison thinks long and hard about the task. Such a person studies the prison and its routines with the greatest diligence – everything is looked at, all the angles are examined. Nothing is rejected as ‘too obvious’ or ‘too crazy’ or ‘too far-fetched’. And with the great familiarity with the system that this approach brings, comes an awareness of the weaknesses of the system. And one day, after much been ground-work has been done, and much patient waiting has been done, the opportunity will arrive. For a person like this, who lives for nothing else than ‘escaping’, there is no such thing as an impregnable prison.



The deep-down and serious wish to escape isn’t the same thing as a craving or desire (i.e. a ‘compulsion’) to escape. If I have a compulsion to escape (which is a common thing), then I forget where I am and focus entirely on my dream of ‘being free’. I live in a fantasy – the fantasy of being where I am not. But if I am 100% serious and not messing about, then I do not waste time living in a fantasy. I do not ‘cop out’ of reality, I do not preoccupy myself with what I want to happen. On the contrary, I live in reality, which is to say I am there, in the prison, paying full attention to the fact that I am there, following all of its routines with interest, taking in every single thing that happens. If I am serious, then I am there all the time – not just when I am in the mood for it. Therefore, we would not be far wrong if we said that the secret of escaping from prison is to genuinely ‘be in prison’. Full-time. Rather than spending most of your time ‘dreaming of better things’, like all the other inmates. The principle is, therefore, ‘if you really want to escape you will’ (and conversely, ‘if you don’t escape, it’s because you didn’t really want to…’)



As it is with physical prisons, so it is with mental prisons; so it is with the invisible prison of the rational mind. The way to escape is to give up playing games, give up looking for the ‘quick fix’, give up living for the sake of easy distractions. I escape by abandoning ‘false escaping’. I escape by being there, full-time, patiently, without dreaming, without hoping for a good outcome, or fearing a bad outcome. I watch myself being a prisoner – I watch myself being trapped in my reactions, going around in circles. I watch myself chasing after dreams the whole time, I watch myself being the helpless slave of fear and greed, and I don’t waste time wishing that things could be different from the way that they are. For a task this big, this important, there can be no such thing as hurrying, no such thing as ‘cutting corners’…




There is a danger that, the way we have described it above, the task of escaping from the prison of the rational mind might be mistaken for an ‘heroic task’. It is possible that we will get fired up by it, and set off heroically to joust with the forces of darkness. Such an attempt is bound to fail, because it involves struggling against ‘the way things are’. No matter how strong and determined I might be, the odds are very against me because the active, aggressive approach does not work here. In this ‘battle’, winning can be more dangerous than losing because the victory of the self or ego is the same thing as ‘the victory of the prison’. The self or ego is the prison, after all. To succeed in what I think the task is delivers me right into the hands of the enemy. Which is, strangely, ‘myself’’ – (i.e. ‘my pattern’).



It is for this reason that a different approach is needed. It is helpful to focus on just how overwhelmingly hard the task is: the whole thing (in practice) is very discouraging as we have said – we can’t help suspecting that it is doomed right from the start. In a very real sense this is true because the moment we pit our wits and our strength against the adversary we make a fatal mistake. The adversary is too big, too wily, and too powerful to be defeated in this way – attacking him plays right into his hands. It is important to realize how great the odds are stacked against us, how weak and scattered we are, and how mighty the opponent is. It is important – if not essential – to realize this because it puts us in a more realistic place. Our attitude becomes more serious, more sober, and less flighty or self-indulgent.



Although as we have said, our chances of actually becoming free are vanishingly small, things are not ‘all bad’ because we have been given a secret key which works by virtue of our own weakness. The key is that ‘being down’ is our strongest, most effective position. Once we understand this, then we can clearly see that the way to become free is to ride with the strength of the opponent, rather than struggling against him. Our defeat is not disadvantageous to us, it is not a set-back on the path to freedom, but rather every ‘knock back’ we sustain is another step forward in the process. Once this principle is understood (once I am no longer desperately fighting to stay ‘one-up’ in the game), then every single thing that happens works to my advantage. As Ram Dass says, it is all ‘grist for the mill’. Similarly,  Jalaluddin Rumi writes:


The minute I’m disappointed, I feel encouraged.

When I’m ruined, I’m healed.

When I’m quiet and solid as the ground, then I talk

the low tones of thunder for everyone.


For a person who both understands, and lives, this “key” there is no more ‘adversary’, no more ‘opponent’. How can there be, when your ‘opponent’ is working for you? For such a person, life has changed its character dramatically, because ‘everything is now on your side’.  The work of the divine is now able to unfold unobstructed – nothing prevents it from accomplishing its work.




We have of course already met this principle of ‘winning freedom through defeat’. Let us take an example to remind ourselves. Suppose that I am (as is very likely) discouraged in my task of ‘patiently bearing with myself through thick and thin, through good times and bad’. Suppose that I am demoralized through finding out that I am constantly being distracted, through finding out that I am constantly reacting in a helpless and automatic way. But in my very frustration lies the key to everything. I want to be not automatically reacting. I want to be ‘not a puppet’. But instead I am automatically reacting, I am a helpless puppet to overwhelmingly powerful external triggers.  Therefore, I am where I do not want to be; I am in that choiceless place, Reality! To be where I do not want to be is psychological work, it is in fact the only work that I could ever do. I could not possibly find a better place to be – this is the only place in which I can find freedom. This neglected spot is the key, the point of defeat is the one place where we never look to find gold, and yet here is the gold.



My job, as always, is not to ‘change’ what is, but to accurately and fearlessly observe what is. If I am defeated, then I observe that I am defeated. But because the Great Task is to see reality as it is, and bear with it, then by accepting the fact of my defeat I have actually succeeded. I have succeeded in the only thing that ever matters – I have succeeded at ‘being in reality’, which is the same thing as ‘escaping from the prison of the rational mind’.









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.

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