Everyone knows what it’s like to be stuck in the situation of thinking about some wretched thing over and over again even though we are sick to the back teeth of thinking about it. Equally, we all know what it’s like to be just generally thinking about all sorts of inconsequential or random details – whether we want to think about them or not. Somehow, it seems that our thinking all too easily ‘runs away with itself’ and takes over, leaving us in the position of a person who can’t turn off their radio or TV or home entertainment system. Of course, our situation is actually worse than this because if I can’t turn off my TV and it is blaring out non-stop, at least I can leave the room, or disconnect the power supply. But when my thinking won’t stop there is nowhere I can go – wherever I go my thinking comes with me. This is a kind of a torture really – particularly when my thinking takes on a distressing, upsetting or tormenting nature.
For this reason it is of inestimable value to learn how to work with our thinking so that it stops taking over all the time, and thereby regain our precious peace of mind. In order to know how to work in a helpful way with our thinking we need to understand thinking, and the best way to understand thinking is to look at it in terms of the basic process of ‘issue-making’. Once we get this straight, then we will understand perfectly what our situation is with regard to thinking.
THE ‘ONE-WAY STREET’ PRINCIPLE
The basic principle behind issues is very straightforward and we can explain it like this:
It is the easiest thing in the world to make an issue of something that wasn’t previously an issue, but once the non-issue has been made into an issue, then no amount of maneuvering or manipulating can make it back into a non-issue again
Basically, when something is not an issue then it simply isn’t especially important to me. It might exist as a possibility, but it doesn’t really matter to me. This ‘possibility’ is kind of floating around freely with all the other possibilities until for some reason I seize hold of it (i.e. until I start taking special notice of it). At this point, the ‘non-issue’ is transformed into an issue – I have made it special by thinking about it.
As we have said, this happens so very easily – one minute there is no issue, and then something occurs to me (possibly as a result of something that happens or something that someone has said) and then I find that I can’t deliberately go back to the ‘untroubled’ or ‘unconcerned’ way that I was before. In general terms, what happens is that I make a transition from a free state of mind, where nothing in particular is grabbing my attention, to an unfree state of mind where my attention is fixated on some sort of problem that seems to need my attention. From this point on, there is no relief for me until I have the problem fixed, and if I cannot figure out how to fix it then that is hard luck for me!
It is of course true that we often wish we could ‘reverse the process’ and go back to our previous, unconcerned state of mind. But although this can happen naturally (by itself, so to speak) we can’t force it to happen. For example, suppose something happens that bugs me, or I remember something that bugs me. Realizing that I have become bugged by it I say, “It doesn’t matter” (or something like that), but as soon as I say that it doesn’t matter to me I have proved that it does matter since if it genuinely didn’t matter then I wouldn’t need to say that it didn’t. This is the same thing as saying “I don’t care…” – on the face of it I may make out that I don’t care but obviously I do care really because otherwise why would I bother making a big deal about the fact that I don’t care? It matters to me that it shouldn’t matter, and so it matters after all!
Getting caught up in an issue is like brushing up against a particularly nasty lump of used chewing gum – the more we try to free ourselves from it the more we become stuck to it. Every time we make the attempt to get rid of the sticky mess we form a new attachment to it until eventually there are dozens of sticky threads connecting us to the offending lump of gum. Issues are just like this because the attempt to separate ourselves from an issue reaffirms that the issue is indeed an issue. Why this should be is obvious enough when we remember that an issue is when something is important to us, or special to us. If I say that the issue isn’t important then the only reason I am saying that is because it is important to me that it should not be important and if I say that it isn’t special then I have just proved myself to be a liar because the very fact that I am mentioning it means that it must be special. As we have already said: I can make something into an issue but once the issue is there, I cannot deliberately (or purposefully) free myself from it.
THE PROCESS OF ‘MAKING IT AN ISSUE’
Everything we have said about issues is equally true for thinking. The process of getting caught up in a particular line of thinking occurs in a purely random sort of way – to start off with there are all sorts of thoughts passing by me, but for whatever reason one of these random passing thoughts triggers something in me and I latch onto it. Really, each thought is a kind of a way of looking at the world – each thought is like a particular pair of sun-glasses which shows us a particular ‘picture’ of the world once we put it on.
None of these viewpoints are exclusively true, which is to say, each thought represents only one way of looking at things, but once we adopt a particular viewpoint we immediately lose perspective and we get trapped in this one, very narrow perspective. It is at this point that we start to feel pressurized to ‘do something’ because a loss of perspective always results in an increase of perceived pressure:
The less perspective I have the more compulsive or driven my state of mind is, and the reason I feel so compulsive or driven is precisely because I am not free to see the full picture
This has all the makings of a classic vicious circle because when I am trapped in a compulsive state of mind (so that I am unable to question the goals that I am continually striving to achieve, and also unable to challenge the motivation that lies behind that striving) then my activity becomes very goal-orientated, very pre-occupied, and very busy. When I become immersed in unreflective, pressurized, goal-orientated activity then the inevitable result is that I lose perspective, which causes me to feel even more pressurized to achieve the goals that seem important to me, which in turn results in me getting even more preoccupied, which causes me to lose even more perspective. No matter what I do I can’t improve the situation – and in fact the more I try to improve it the more oppressively claustrophobic things get…
This process of progressively losing perspective occurs even if I am not physically ‘doing’ anything because thinking is goal-orientated activity in itself. Thinking is ‘busy-ness’, and so lying in bed doing nothing more than thinking about problems or issues causes these problems or issues to become ever more real to me, ever more ‘pressing’. Basically, issues become more and more real the more I think about them. I am as Alan Watts says in a double-bind at this point because even if I try not thinking about whatever it is that I don’t want to think about deliberately ‘not-thinking’ about an issue is still thinking about an issue. If I say, “I am not going to think about it” I have already thought about it simply by mentioning (or specifying) what it is that I don’t want to think about. In other words:
Thinking about the issue and trying not to think about it both make the issue in question more real and therefore more ‘trapping’
LOSING MENTAL FREEDOM
On a good day, when nothing is worrying us or getting us down, thoughts come and go in freedom, like birds swooping and soaring through an open blue sky. This is another way of saying that there is a sense of space, a feeling of exhilaration, a feeling that there is an uncluttered scope of possibilities. This state of mind is when there is maximum perspective, and zero ‘compulsivity’ (zero compulsivity is when we could do anything, but we don’t have to do anything). Clearly, when we are feeling like this there is no problem anywhere, no particular issues, and nothing to spoil our happiness. We can think about anything at all if we want to, but we don’t have to.
Such a marvellous breadth of mental freedom is of course the exception rather than the rule. Usually the space available to us in our heads is much more limited and instead of feeling that we are standing under the infinite dome of a cloudless sky, we are hunched up in a small and dingy room, surrounded by all sorts of rubbish and with the walls and ceiling pressing in on us on all sides. The worse thing of all is not that we end up in a mentally cramped mental situation, caught up in petty problems that we never seem to get free from, the worse thing of all is that we don’t really know any different. When we are in this wretched situation (i.e. trapped in a dingy, cluttered, viewless and depressing cubicle in our minds when we should be outside in the open air, drinking in the majestic splendor and beauty of nature) we don’t even know what it is that we are missing out on. We take it for granted that the dingy cubicle of our everyday mind is all that there is. The principle here is very simple:
At the same time as we lose perspective we also lose the perspective to know that we have lost anything
Usually, mental freedom (or mental spaciousness) is a restricted commodity because we are beset with niggling concerns on all sides. ‘Issues’ (or whatever you want to call them) are space invaders when it comes down – they invade our mental space and take away our freedom, our peace of mind. Some of these issues seem to be solvable, but this is really an illusion because as soon as we sort one problem out another appears on the horizon – life is an endless conveyer belt of issues. And in addition to the solvable-but-recurring problems, there are the insoluble ones that just can’t be fixed, no matter how hard we try. The net result is that we have precious little piece of mind. In short, we are eaten up on the inside by a various assortment of concerns, worries, addictions and obsessions; each and every one of these space invaders wants a piece of us, and after they have all had their turn there is precious little of us left over. We’re all ‘eaten up’ – we’ve been consumed by the attention-greedy issues.
Another way of putting this idea across is to say that we don’t usually get much of a chance to appreciate the broad and magnificent expanse of life because we are always thinking, because we are always obsessing about trivial details. It is of course true that some details – even though they might be trivial – are nonetheless important, and it is also true that some details genuinely are important and need to be attended to. The point is however that we are constantly being invaded and taken over by or issues that are not genuinely important at all and so instead of attending to legitimate problems we get caught up in pseudo-problems. Being sidetracked in this way means that we end up spending an awful lot of time consumed by stuff that doesn’t actually matter a damn. This is what Sogyal Rinpoche (1992) calls ‘active laziness’ –
If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called ‘responsibilities’ accumulate to fill them up. One master compares them to ‘housekeeping in a dream’. We tell ourselves we want to spend time on the important things of life, but there never is any time. Even simply to get up in the morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the dog or cat, do last night’s washing up, discover you are out of sugar or coffee, go and buy them, make breakfast — the list is endless. Then there are clothes to sort out, choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair, or your makeup? Helpless, we watch our days fill up with telephone calls and petty projects, with so many ‘responsibilities’ — or shouldn’t we call them ‘irresponsibilities’?
Our lives seem to live us, to possess their own bizarre momentum, to carry us away; in the end we feel we have no choice or control over them. Of course we feel bad about this sometimes, we have nightmares and wake up in a sweat, wondering: ‘What am I doing with my life?’ But our fears only last till breakfast time; out comes the briefcase, and back we go to where we started.
It goes without saying that all of these ‘unimportant concerns’ (these so-called ‘responsibilities’) seem to us as if they are worth pursuing at the time. They seem highly significant to us at the time but this is only because our subjective world has shrunk so much that that the trivial issues seem big to us. And of course, in the process of becoming caught up in these pseudo-problems we lose even more perspective, and get trapped even more in the type of ‘low-perspective mind-state’ in which it makes sense to be thinking about the sort of things that we are thinking about. This is a frightening thought – few of us would stop what we are doing long enough to consider the possibility that we are living in a world that is slowly but surely shrinking, leaving us totally preoccupied with issues that only seem meaningful to us because of our staggering lack of perspective. This is in fact a totally mind-blowing idea – that I might be spending all (or most) of my time worried and concerned about all sorts of problems that actually don’t matter to me, even only I could see it!
Two types of thoughts that typically tend to preoccupy us in this way are thoughts of what we could call the ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ variety. ‘What if’ thoughts are thoughts that are concerned with the remote possibility of things going wrong in the future – there is an infinite range of ways in which things could go ‘not to plan’ and ‘what if’ thinking addresses itself to this infinite range of possibility. Obviously, once I start going down this road there is no end to it because for every ‘what if’ that I solve (even assuming that the ‘what ifs’ are solvable in the first place) ten more will suddenly appear to take their place.
‘What ifs’ are everywhere – there are two dozen lurking behind every bush in the garden, behind every hedge and lamp-post and parked car in the street, and so on. Once we start noticing them, and paying attention to them, and taking them seriously, then what ifs come out of nowhere and quickly fill up all the available space. Nothing else gets a look in. Before I know what is happening I am thoroughly inundated and worrying myself sick about ‘what ifs’ is all I have time for. This is anxiety in a nutshell, and the thing about anxiety is that it represents a process whereby our peace of mind is insidiously eroded, leaving us continually clinging to the crumbling cliff-edge of our ever-shrinking comfort zone.
‘What ifs’ are concerned with unresolved matters (i.e. risks) that may occur in the future, whereas ‘if onlys’ are all about unresolved matters belonging to the past. When we think about all the unresolved problems that could possibly exist in the future then the motivation is to find some way of resolving them, of rendering them ‘safe’ in some way. When we think about all the unresolved problems that already have occurred in the past (i.e. stuff that has happened to us that we have difficulty in accepting) then the motivation is exactly the same – we are searching for some way to resolve them. This is of course a fruitless endeavour because the fact of the matter is that whatever it was that happened actually already did happen, and so there is nothing we can do about it.
‘If onlys’ are clearly no better than ‘what ifs’ – both of these lines of thought involve us in fruitless tasks that take up all of our time. On the one hand we worry about stuff that will probably never happen, and on the other hand we fret over stuff that already has happened, and about which we can obviously do nothing! ‘If onlys’ and ‘what ifs’ are both classic examples of space invaders because once we start taking them seriously they just go on and on indefinitely, occupying all our attention with tasks that either can’t be solved, or don’t need solving. And even though we tend to be more-or-less aware of the futility of the thoughts in question, we still can’t stop ourselves taking them seriously. We can’t help getting sucked in.
THINKING FOR THE SAKE OF THINKING
What ifs and if onlys are classic examples of thoughts that effectively tie us up in tasks that are perfectly and utterly futile. It is possible to identify many other examples of futile thinking such as ‘analyzing thoughts’ (“Why did this happen”), ‘complaining thoughts’ (“This thing shouldn’t be happening”) and self-blaming thoughts’ (“I shouldn’t be like this”). All of these have the basic function of tying us up indefinitely in repeating patterns of futile mental activity. The essential point to grasp about obsessive or ‘unfree’ thinking is that it is an exercise in time-wasting that doesn’t declare itself as being an exercise in time-wasting. Rather than declaring itself from the outset as being totally futile and a thorough waste of time the thinking represents itself as being useful to us, which is to say, it provokes or entices us into taking it seriously.
As we have said, not all thinking is compulsive and time-wasting. If I pursue a line of thought in order to solve a legitimate problem, and then drop the thinking once it has done the job, then this is an example of thought acting as it should do – as a useful tool or instrument. Similarly, if an interesting thought occurs to me, and then I am able to ‘move on’ to something else, then this too is an example of thought acting as a useful instrument. The thinking process is then serving some higher end than itself – in the first case it exists to solve the problem, and in the second case it exists to refer me on to something interesting or valuable, something that is not itself.
Unfree thinking is different to this because whilst it pretends that it is going to help us solve a problem, or take us somewhere interesting, this is really just a pretext for it to be there. This sort of thinking is rather like a cancerous growth which proliferates for the sake of proliferating. What is going on here is that the thinking exists for its own sake, rather than for any higher reason. Compulsive thinking is ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’ and we can envisage this in terms of a basic ‘turnaround’ :
Thinking for the sake of thinking’ is when our thinking has ceased being an obedient and useful servant, and has become a tyrannical master (albeit a master who cunningly pretends that he is there to serve us)
When our thinking becomes distressing to us, as in the case of worrying or self-blaming, the pointless and destructive nature of our thoughts is brought home to us and we realize with no trouble at all that we would be better off without them. However, an awful lot of our day-to-day thinking of the common or garden variety is also ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’, rather than being genuinely useful. This comes down to self-distraction. For example, when we are nervous in company it often happens that we talk not for the sake of saying anything important, but just for the sake of distracting ourselves from being aware of how uncomfortable we feel. This can happen even if I am not nervous – I might talk even though I have nothing to say in order to entertain myself (which is to say, in order to avoid the discomfort of noticing how I feel when I am not being entertained). In both cases I am ‘talking for the sake of talking’.
A lot of our ‘self talk’ is like this because we are either talking in order to comfort ourselves, talking in order to make ourselves feel better, or talking in order to distract ourselves from feeling uncomfortable. This kind of thinking is more-or-less unconscious in that we do it without really noticing that we are doing it. Because we don’t notice this sort of habitual self-talk, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in it, but there is harm in it all the same because it is unfree rather than genuinely volitional. This is another way of saying that I am addicted to the self-comforting or self-distracting thinking in order to feel good, or in order not to feel too bad, and any addiction is always harmful because it means that I am being held hostage by my absolute need for some external factor.
If the external factor which we are dependent on were always to be there and if it were always to be effective, then there might be an argument to say that the addiction is ‘harmless enough’. However, quite apart from the adverse effect that the fact of being addicted always has on the self-respect (or self-esteem) of the person who is addicted, it is a fact that the external factor that we are relying on will not always be there for us. In the case of the habit of self-comforting or self-distracting thinking, the method that we are relying on in order to avoid fear or mental pain will one day let us down. It is inevitably going to let us down, sooner or later. If we think it won’t, then we are just kidding ourselves.
SELLING YOUR SOUL
It is utterly impossible to achieve mental health by application of ‘a method’ for the simple reason that relying on a method means handing over the responsibility that we have to deal directly with whatever difficulty is there on our door-step. If you do give me a powerful method of ‘dealing’ with fear or mental pain then all this does is to weaken me by making me dependent on some ‘coping’ behaviour. Dependence on a coping behaviour means that my trust in my own ability to directly relate to the difficulty decreases and decreases until it is virtually zero, and my need to believe in the efficacy of the method increases and increases until the whole of my well-being seems to be tied up with it. At this point I have every reason to be anxious, since my well-being is dependent upon some external mechanism or procedure – a mechanism or procedure that I quite rightly suspect (on some deep-down level) to be untrustworthy.
With regard to self-comforting or self-distracting, then it is the case that if I am addicted to this type of thinking for my well being then it is this thinking that is the master, not me. Furthermore, it is also the case that one day that master will inevitably turn against me. In metaphorical terms, relying on coping mechanisms such as self-comforting thinking is equivalent to selling your soul to the Devil, since the short-term benefit that we receive from the deal in no way recompenses us for the terrible price that we have paid for it. The ‘terrible price’ I end up paying is the total loss of my freedom – I benefit inasmuch as I feel better right now, but the one thing that is certain is that I will feel like I am in hell later on when the method that I have allowed myself to become dependent upon lets me down. ‘Good in the short-term’ equals ‘very bad indeed’ in the long-term’!
The key point to understand about unfree (or compulsive) thinking is that a thought is an issue, which is to say, it is something that wasn’t originally important but which is made to be important by our taking it seriously. This process of issue-making is a one-way street because if I start reacting to an issue by saying that “It doesn’t really matter” all I am doing is proving to myself that it does matter. With regard to thoughts what this means is that if I react to a thought in an attempt to free myself from its influence, I am merely increasing the hold that it has on me.
Whether I react positively or negatively to the thought in question makes no difference at all. A positive reaction is where I agree with the thought – I say “YES” to it (I say “Yes this thought is important”). If I agree with the thought then obviously this is feeding the thought, because I am agreeing that it matters. But if I disagree with the thought and ‘argue with it’ by saying “No this thought doesn’t matter” I am still feeding the thought because I am still taking it seriously. I am agreeing to disagree. The point is that agreeing and disagreeing both create ‘an issue’ :
Agreeing equals disagreeing because if I agree that the issue is an issue then it is an issue, but if I disagree that the issue is an issue then it is still an issue (it is still an issue because I am agreeing that the point is important enough to disagree with)
UNDERSTANDING THE TRAP
The key point is ‘an issue’ equals ‘a trap’, and I am caught in this trap no matter which way I go. If I agree that it matters then this makes it matter, and if I disagree then this also makes it matter. Whichever position I choose to take it is the same – as soon as I ‘take a position’ it is an issue. Agreeing and disagreeing both have the same result. And if I think I understand this point and say to myself “Right then, I won’t take a position…” this still feeds back into the issue because ‘not taking a position’ is itself a position.
Actually, if I really understood the point then I wouldn’t waste my time trying to think of the ‘right way’ to deal with the problem in the first place. The reason we can be so sure that I would be wasting my time in trying to think of the right thing to do in order to escape from the issue is very simple:
If everything I do feeds right back into the issue that I am trying to escape from, and makes it more real to me than ever, then very obviously there is no such thing as ‘a right way’ to escape from an issue. The notion is absurd!
Trying to deal with the problem (or trying to fix the problem) is the same thing as trying to avoid it, or escape from it and so as soon as I see myself thinking like this then I straightaway know that I have fallen into the same old trap once again. The key to the whole thing is the idea of ‘choice’ – if I think that I have a choice then this means that I am assuming that there is a ‘right way to do things’ out there, and if I assume this then that means that I have not understood that all possible ways of responding (or reacting) are equally good in terms of reinforcing the original issue.
Because there is no right way to respond it is simply not meaningful for me to think in terms of ‘choice’. Thinking that there is a right choice which it is possible for me to take is a form of self-delusion – I am basically kidding myself. As soon as I think in terms of me having a choice in the matter I am primed to react and as soon as I react I get caught in the issue. Making a choice sounds like a good thing to do but it isn’t as far as an issue is concerned because when I start to look at things in this way that means I have implicitly accepted that the issue is in fact an issue. Believing that ‘I have a choice’ traps me. On the other hand, seeing that reality is as Krishnamurti says essentially ‘choiceless’ equals freedom. There is no freedom in having to make a choice, and there is infinite freedom in seeing that everything – in its ultimate nature – is essentially choiceless.
When I react to the provocation that the situation has provided then I am caught up in it – I am ‘taking the thought seriously on its own terms’. But if I choose not to react then this is still reacting. I am still taking the thought seriously on its own terms. This might seem like a brick wall but it isn’t. The point is that when I react this is not a genuine choice on my part – reacting is an action which is driven by the unfree (or ‘compulsive’) motivation of attachment. Basically, I think that I am exercising choice but actually I have to react. I might choose between agreeing and disagreeing, but this is a meaningless choice really since as far as the issue is concerned agreeing and disagreeing come down to the same thing.
Attachment provides me with the possibility of freedom on a superficial level (i.e. the freedom of how I chose to react) but it takes away all my freedom on a more profound level – it takes away my freedom not to react. This idea that there are two levels (the obvious versus the ‘not-obvious’) gives us a very good way of understanding what attachment is all about:
Attachment works by putting me in a situation where I think that I have to do something – what I do in order to fix the problem (or escape from the problem) is up to me, but the underlying rule that ‘I have to do something’ is not something that I am able to question. This is non-negotiable
I am therefore free to choose between the two responses of YES and NO, but I am not free not to choose, so to speak. The apparent freedom that I have to respond within the terms that are set out for me masks a profound lack of freedom – the lack of freedom that I have with regard to taking the issue seriously on its own terms. Whatever the issue is, I am not free to ‘not take it seriously’ and it is precisely this that makes the issue an issue.
This situation where there is the appearance of free choice on the face of things which masks a complete and utter lack of choice in reality is a neat way of summing up what is meant by the term ‘an issue’. An issue is a situation that contains the illusion of freedom (or the illusion of the possibility of freedom) whilst actually containing no freedom at all. It is the illusion of freedom that traps us so thoroughly because if we could see that there was no freedom then we simply would not waste our time. As it is, we do not see the lack of freedom and so we are not free to drop it and ‘move on’.
The motivation behind attachment comes down to the overwhelming need that we have to escape from an uncomfortable or frightening situation. This is the all-powerful force that drives us. It is the unquestionable nature of this need that traps us in the issue of ‘how to fix the problem’ because once we start thinking in this way then we have taken it totally for granted that we have to do something. Once I take this for granted then all my attention goes into the question of what to do and I am not free to consider the possibility that maybe I don’t need to do anything at all. The question “What should I do” drives out a more profound question, which is the question of “Why do I need to do anything?” From this point on I am trapped in fighting and struggling and analysing and planning and calculating and all the rest of it. I am stuck firmly in ‘control mode’, which is another way of saying that can no longer question why I feel that I have to control.
The bottom line is that I am not really free at all. I am free to obey the underlying rule that says ‘I must fix the problem in any way that I can’ but if I am ‘free to obey the rule’ then this is the same as saying that I am ‘free to be a slave’. I am free to be a slave to the rule. After all, if I tell you that you are free to carry out my orders, exactly what sort of ‘freedom’ is this? Basically, it is the freedom not to be free, which is ‘backwards freedom’ (or ‘upside-down freedom’). In order not to fall into the trap of accepting the issue as it is presented to us by our thinking all that is needed is the realization that we are free not to react. Just because I am being pressurized by discomfort or pain or fear doesn’t mean that I have to ‘do something’. False volition is based on the unexamined belief that I have to escape fear and as such it is  fundamentally unfree, and  based on illusion’. It is unfree because I am not free to disobey it, and it is ‘based on illusion’ because the truth is that I don’t have to do anything at all!
False volition doesn’t really give me any choice in the matter, and so clearly it has nothing to do with free will. When it comes down to it, false volition is nothing more than a mere mechanical reflex which can do nothing other than endlessly perpetuate the original illusion-created problem in ‘disguised form’. True volition is free because it has nothing to do with any ‘needs’ that I might falsely perceive myself as having. In other words, when I exercise true volition this has nothing to do with my so-called ‘need’ to escape pain. Whilst false volition is ‘slavish’, because we cannot ever question it, true volition is ‘heroic’ because it is not predicated upon attachment, i.e. it isn’t the result of a ‘forced choice’.
The secret to finding freedom from all the space-invading ‘issues’ that constantly tie us up in knots is true volition, and true volition is something that arises naturally in us when we realize that we don’t necessarily have to respond to the thought. The way compulsive thoughts work is by pressurizing us into taking them seriously by either ‘buying into them’ or ‘fighting against them’. We either affirm or deny, accept or reject. We go along with the thought or we fight against it. To let the thought be there without either accepting or rejecting its premise feels very uncomfortable for us (which is why we do react) but if we tolerate the uncomfortable, ‘itchy’ type of feeling that the thought produces when it comes on the scene then we are no longer feeding it. Thinking is how we fly from discomfort and so feeling the discomfort is a sure way to cut the thinking off at source, rather than merely blocking it.
BECOMING ‘ADDICTED TO THINKING’
The proof that we are not feeding the thought is the uncomfortable sensation that we are experiencing when we just ‘let it be there’. Normally this itchy sensation is only there for a fraction of a second before we react, and our instant reacting brings us a moment of ‘relief’. However, in going for the short-term relief we have in effect sold our soul to the Devil because we are now addicted to the mechanism of thinking in order to feel okay. Thinking never gets us anywhere, but it allows us the comforting illusion that we might get somewhere. We live in hope, and as long as we can avoid seeing the utter futility of trying to ‘escape by thinking’ we will carry on forever.
The way the mechanism works is very simple indeed – an itch comes along and we automatically react in order to obtain relief from the discomfort. The relief is only temporary however because the fact that we have reacted means that we have granted the thought power over us, which means that ‘the need to react’ becomes ever stronger. So from now on we are locked into an endlessly repeating sequence of buying into every thought-created issue that comes along – the only freedom we have is the false freedom of ‘having to solve the problem within the terms that it is presented to us’. In other words, the only freedom we have is the freedom to be a slave to our compulsive thinking.
John Bennett calls this deceptive or ‘upside-down’ type of freedom negative freedom. Negative freedom isn’t the lack of freedom, which is an honest and straightforward sort of a thing, but rather it is the lack of freedom that falsely represents itself as being freedom. We can also explain negative freedom by saying that it is ‘a choice that is no choice’. We choose between the various options that are provided for us by our thinking, and so we experience ourselves as having a degree of freedom in this. However, the choice that we are offered is in fact ‘Hobson’s choice’ – actually we have no real choice at all because we cannot choose anything that lies outside of the established pattern of thinking which enslaves us.
This is like being in a so-called democracy where you can vote for a number of different political parties on the basis that they are all ‘significantly different’. But if all the political parties happen to be disguised versions of the same thing, then all I have is ‘the illusion of choice’. When I choose from alternatives provided for me by the established pattern of thinking what I am choosing in every case is ‘the established pattern of thinking’, and because I can only choose this one thing there isn’t really any choice there at all. Even if I choose to think about how I can become free from my established pattern of thinking, and go beyond it, this thought too is part of my ‘established pattern of thinking’. And if I choose to think about how I can become free from the established habit that I have of thinking about how I can become from free from my established habit of thinking, this too is part of my pattern of thinking. The attempt to quit the game is part of the game (i.e. the intention to stop playing the game is an established move within the game).
This ‘lack of freedom to make a genuine choice’ is downright scary once we really get the hang of it. It dawns on us like a horrible and uncannily familiar nightmare. This is the reason we instinctively shy away from it and retreat as quick as ever we can back into the comfort zone of negative freedom, which is where we are ‘stuck without knowing we are stuck’. When I am stuck without knowing that I am stuck then I am at the mercy of my thinking, I am a helpless slave in other words. But when I know that I am stuck – when I clearly (and courageously) see the utter banal futility of my pattern of thinking, then – paradoxically – I am no longer a prisoner of it.
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.