Curiously enough, perhaps, we can say that mindfulness doesn’t come out of the mind, or out of anything the mind says or does. It doesn’t come out of any of the maps or models that the mind makes. The thinking mind’s function is to create structures and mindfulness has nothing to do with adhering to structures! This is precisely where mindfulness (or the state of ‘being mindful’) differs from everything else we do – everything else we do has to do with adhering to one structure or another. Anything else (anything else other than simply being ‘present’) is tied up with our on-going thinking process. Anything else (other than simply being present) is a construct of the thinking process. Anything else (other than simply being present) is a form of absence!
THE ‘CONDITIONED’ STATE OF BEING
A more commonly encountered way of putting this is to say that all other states of being (other than the ‘mindful’ state in which we are simply being present) are conditioned ones. ‘Conditioned’ means that some structure or another is being adhered to – it means that there is a specific format to the way in which we are seeing reality. Or we could say that ‘conditioned’ means that there is a specific format to the way in which we exist in the world. We live almost entirely within structures of one sort or another, systems of one sort or another – which is to say that our experiences are all constructed in relation to some framework or other, some fixed ‘template’ or other. This therefore necessarily means that we are living in a kind of ‘pre-formatted’ world – not the world as it actually is in itself.
Frameworks (or templates) are how we make sense of the world and we use them so habitually, so automatically, that we don’t even notice ourselves doing so. They are invisible to us, and yet we use them all the time! Our mental templates enable us to say what stuff ‘is’ – we use them in order to create meaning, therefore. The thing about this is however that the type of meaning we are talking about here is conditioned meaning. It is meaning that has been ‘conditioned’ by our mental templates and this is another way of saying that it is only true insofar as the templates themselves are true. Or we could also say that conditioned meaning is ‘true relative to the yardstick of our own measuring mind’.
This is the key to everything because the ‘mental templates’ that we are talking about here never are ‘true’ in the way that we assume them to be; they are there to provide a fixed point of reference, not to represent some sort of ‘absolute statement of truth’. They never were there to provide absolute truth; that isn’t their job at all. At the very best they can be pragmatically useful – they can never be more than this, they can never be ‘actually true’. Generally speaking, most of our mental templates for understanding stuff do have a certain pragmatic usefulness, which is to say, they allow us to function effectively in the particular environment which we happen to exist within. They are a useful tool therefore – but not a provider of absolute truths.
STUCK IN ‘THINKING MODE’
Even though our mental templates (or ‘frameworks’) are generally useful in a practical way, this still doesn’t mean that it is a good thing to be saddled with them full-time, however! All templates, all frameworks, are ‘arbitrary restrictions’ on the way we see both ourselves and the world and because they are restrictive in this way it is of great benefit to be free from them from time to time, in much the same way that we might want to be free from uncomfortable formal attire when we aren’t required to wear it. Once we’re away from the formal situation (work or whatever it is) we will probably want to change into something comfortable like an old pair of jeans and a tee-shirt and relax, and in the same way it feels good – when we’re ‘off-duty’, so to speak – to relax and hang up our templates or frameworks (our ‘analysing/categorizing mind’) in the wardrobe until the next time we need them.
Or rather it would feel good if we were able to let go of our fixed framework of understanding (i.e. our thinking mind) when we don’t need it but we just don’t have the freedom to do so. This is the whole problem! We can’t go ‘off-duty’ with regard to our thinking just because we want to – the thinking mind doesn’t come with an off button! The framework of thinking that conditions how we see the world doesn’t contain the space within it that we would need to see that there is any way of being other than the ‘thinking mode’. We become so caught up in our habitual patterns of thinking that we are no longer able to question them; in other words, we no longer have the perspective available to us to see that it isn’t as urgent to ‘keep on thinking’ (to ‘keep on enacting the thought patterns’) as the thinking itself makes us believe that it is. So thinking drives out the possibility of ‘not-thinking’, if we could put it like that! The habitual thought patterns have such a grip on us that we can no longer see that we don’t have to keep enacting them and this is another way of saying that we no longer have the capacity to ‘let go’ of our thoughts any more.
WHEN THE TOOL SWITCHES PLACES WITH THE USER OF THE TOOL
Jung talks about how, if we wear a particular ‘social mask’ (i.e. a persona) too much, then there is a danger that it will become stuck onto us, impossible to take off again as we ought to be able to take a mask off again. It ‘grows onto our flesh’, so to speak. What happens then is that the mask, the persona, becomes us and so the very idea of ‘taking the mask off’ becomes something that can never occur to us! Jung speaks of this phenomenon in terms of being ‘possessed by the persona’ because rather than ‘us using the persona’, the persona uses us. This is exactly what happens with our thinking – the thinking somehow gets ‘stuck fast’ to us like a lump of used chewing gum might get stuck on our shoe, and when this happens then our thinking is possessing us. We get so habituated to using our mental templates for understanding the world that they become us, and so the idea of ‘letting go of them’ never occurs. It never occurs to us that we don’t actually NEED to be using these mental templates the whole time; we can no longer see that they’re only there to help us with a particular job, a particular type of task, and that it isn’t necessary that we should be using them on a full-time basis. So actually, we don’t use them – they use us.
This is a case of what J.G. Bennett calls ‘the tool switching places with the user of the tool’. Just as the social persona (the role we have in society) possesses us and becomes ‘who we are’ so too does thinking possesses us and becomes who we are. We become our thinking, which is an absurd state of affairs. As the saying goes: thought, like fire, is a good servant but a very bad master. When we become our thinking then we are no longer free not to think and so we end up thinking all the time. Because we are thinking all the time we are ‘hemmed in’ all the time, we are ‘constricted’ all the time, but worse than this, because we are thinking all the time we are not ourselves. We are only what our thoughts allow us to be; we are only what our thoughts tell us we are…
BEING A SLAVE TO THE THINKING PROCESS
This all comes down to being ‘a slave of our own thinking process’. If I am not myself as I truly am (which has nothing to do with any kind of structure, any kind of thought process) then I have to be whatever what my thinking tells me I am. This is the same point that Henri Frederic Amiel is making when he says,
The man who has no inner life is the slave of his surroundings.
If everything about me is determined by my thinking then I can have no ‘inner life’ – I can only be ‘what I am conditioned to be, what I am programmed to be’. If my inner life is conditioned then it isn’t mine – it belongs to some external structure or system. And just as there is ‘no structure which is me’ there is no such thing as ‘right conditioning’ – there can’t be such a thing as ‘the correct conditioning’ any more than there can be such a thing as a mental template which represents some kind of ‘absolutely true perspective’ on life.
No matter what framework we take on things it’s never going to be more than an arbitrary viewpoint – and what’s more, it’s an arbitrary viewpoint that we can’t see to be an arbitrary viewpoint! We gain a well-defined black-and–white picture of reality but at the same time we lose the capacity to see that this well-defined, black-and-white, cut-and-dried picture doesn’t represent any kind of ‘absolute truth’, even though it implicitly claims to be…
THE PREDICAMENT OF ‘BEING DEFINED’
Saying that our conditioning doesn’t represent absolute truth even though it claims to do so is like saying that there is ‘no right way and no wrong way for us to be in the world’. Who we are in our essence is not ‘a structure’, in other words. It’s not something that can be defined or pinned down. With regard to the narrow ‘black-and-white picture’ that our logical thinking provides us with however there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way for us to be (and for everything else to be as well) and it this sense of there being a right way and a wrong way that is the restriction which our thinking places on us. ‘Right and wrong’ is the straight-jacket that we are forced to wear by the thinking mind because in ‘right versus wrong’ there is no space for us to be as we actually are. We are compelled to conform to a structure – and yet who we are in our essence is NOT a structure! This therefore is the predicament that we find ourselves in when we let ourselves be defined by our thinking.
‘Structure’, ‘conditioning’, and ‘thinking’ are all different ways of talking about the same thing – these are really all different ways of talking about LOGIC. Logic is all about right and wrong, black and white, YES and NO, IN and OUT, belonging and not belonging. Inherent in logic therefore is there is this essential ‘lack of space’ – lack of space (or ‘lack of uncertainty’) is what makes logic logic. Without the complete and utter absence of space (i.e. the lack of freedom for things to be different from the way they are defined as being) logic couldn’t be logic. Lack of space means things ‘have to be this way and they can’t be that way’. Lack of space means RIGHT and WRONG, in other words: we have to fit into the format or structure that is provided because ‘not fitting in’ is just not allowed! Straightaway therefore we can see that this is not a very good situation – not matter how we try to get it right we are never going found failing in some way, which is why logic (or the thinking mind) is – as we have said – a good servant but a very bad master…
We could say that what Henri Amiel calls our ‘inner life’ is the same thing as ‘the space or freedom for us to be what we actually are’. When we lose our inner life this inevitably translates into suffering. Restriction always means suffering – how can it not do? We may be unaware of this suffering because we have successfully distracted ourselves from it in some way (for example by keeping ourselves busy chasing goals the whole time, constantly preoccupying ourselves in trying to get things to be ‘the right way and not the wrong way’) but this basic suffering is never going to be far away. The moment we fail to obtain the goal (the moment we fail to get things right) then the suffering that we have been hidden from will jump on top of us immediately and give us a really good kicking. This is why we fear failure and covet success – it’s not about what we think it’s about, it’s about our attempted adaptation to the straight-jacket of the rational mind. It’s about our attempted adaptation to the structure. It’s about our attempted adaptation to ‘the prison of right and wrong’.
STAYING ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE PAIN
At the very best, therefore, we are only ever going to be one step ahead of the pain which we are trying to elude, the pain which arises out of the predicament of being defined. We’re always going to be trying to ‘stay in control’ because not being in control means (when we’re in ‘flight mode’) facing up to whatever it is that we’re in flight from! When we’re in the business of running away from pain then not being in control ceases to be an option because the first thing that happens to us is that what we’re running away from catches up with us. It might feel as if ‘not being in control’ is a bad thing (and this is what we will usually say), but the ‘bad thing’ we’re worried about is of course what we’re trying to escape from. But because escape has become a way of life (which it has when we are in the neurotic mode of existence, which is the mode of existence in which ‘running away from pain’ is an aim in itself, albeit a disguised or unacknowledged aim) the loss of control, when it starts to manifest itself, is perceived in terms of an absolutely unthinkable disaster – a threat to our very existence. This threat is what we are referring to when we speak of ‘having a mental break-down’; the only thing that is really breaking down is our system of denial but because we do not see that there is such a thing as ‘a system of denial’ (which we can’t see when we’re identified with it) the projected breakdown is feared as ‘the worst outcome possible’. It’s viewed as a harmful not a helpful thing.
Actually, the break-down of our way of distracting ourselves from what is really going on in our lives (as opposed to what we want to think is going on) is – of course! – a completely wholesome and beneficial sort of a thing. Anything that brings us back to ourselves is a wholesome and beneficial sort of thing, no matter how painful the process might be. It is only painful, after all, because we are orientated in such a way that ‘truth’ (or ‘the perception of truth’) have now become something to fight against as hard as ever we can, rather than something to be welcomed. When we’re in the neurotic mode of existence ‘escape from pain’ is of course the ultimate good – it is the positive outcome we can’t look beyond, the positive outcome we don’t want to look beyond! It is ‘winning’!!! To be afflicted with mental pain that we can’t distract ourselves from in the established ways that we have of distracting ourselves is therefore what is called ‘a blessing in disguise’ – loathe as we are to admit it! Only when this happens do we stand a chance of seeing that we are addicted to control because we are addicted to running away from the basic underlying painful truth of our situation, not because control (or being forever caught up in chasing after goals and acting out hour intentions) is a ‘good thing in itself’…
Thinking creates a world made up of structures, a world made up of logic. Thinking creates a world made up of rules, a bleak and unforgiving world of ‘right versus wrong’. It doesn’t necessarily seem to us that this is the case – it sounds perhaps like a rather strange way of putting things – but the reason that we don’t see thinking and its products in this way is because thinking also produces this thing that we might call ‘false spaciousness’ (or ‘false freedom’) – it creates this illusion that there is something else there other than restrictive rules, just so long as we can obey the logic of its structures correctly. If we can do this – the thinking process promises us – then we can find freedom, then we can find glorious release from our problems. This is the carrot that leads us on and what we are essentially doing is trying to ‘control successfully’ so that we can reach this promised spaciousness, this promised freedom. If we look very carefully at what the thinking process is doing we can always see this to be the case. Every goal that we reach for is a ‘promise of spaciousness’ that will inevitably turn out to be false.
All that is really happening is that we are losing what Henri Amiel calls our ‘inner life’. We are losing our inner life but we are not attending to the fact because we are far too preoccupied with the false promise that the thinking mind is forever making to us – the promise of ‘final deliverance’ (or ‘final release’) if we obey it correctly. This is our basic psychological situation, which is a situation that we might describe in terms of the abandonment of the real and the wholesome for the delusory and the unwholesome. This constant turning away from the real and the wholesome towards the glittering but hollow promises of the thinking mind happens on the inside, and it also happens on the outside – the pursuit of false spaciousness is when it comes right down to it what modern life is all about!
Such a situation can only have one result and that is to produce ongoing pain for us – whether we are aware of this pain where it belongs (in our lack of an inner life, in our lack of intrinsic freedom) of whether we are not. To get back to our argument, it is clearly going to be extraordinarily helpful for us to be aware of this pain in the place where it belongs, and this is exactly what does happen when our tried and trusted self-distraction methods start to fail us. When we are led by our pain towards being aware of our lack of inner life, or lack of inner freedom, then this is of course when we realize how important it is for us to recover our inner life, to recover our inner freedom. We had forgotten (and then abandoned) what was most important to us because of our attraction to the false promises of the over-valued thinking mind, and now we can see that, even if we don’t want to…
At this point therefore we might turn to what is called ‘mindfulness’ (or ‘meditation’) as a way of recovering what we have lost. This is after all what mindfulness is all about – it’s all about recovering our inner spaciousness! As a result of the pain that we have confronted within ourselves, we are now orientated towards discovering the truth, rather than constantly (and unconsciously) fleeing from it. This is the only journey that matters, the only journey that is of any real interest, and it isn’t in the least bit important what we call it. What we’re doing is giving up our reliance on the thinking mind and its ‘templates for understanding’ and moving instead into the mysterious and uncharted world that exists outside of this measuring mind. Joseph Campbell calls this the Hero’s Journey – we leave beyond the hollow comfort and pointless security of the playpen and move out into the big wide world that lies beyond!
It is at this point that a paradox always comes up – the paradox of trying to escape the thinking mind. There are innumerable ways to look at this paradox. We could say that we want to become free from having to control or manage ourselves and so we try to do this by creating and extra – ultra-subtle – layer of controlling and regulation on top of the one that is already there. We could say that we want to get free from always having to do everything for a reason (which is ‘the prison of purposefulness’) and so this becomes our new ‘reason’, our new ‘purpose’. This becomes our new prison. We could say that we want to stop thinking all the time and so we try to learn ways of ‘not thinking’, and these ways are themselves structures that have been created by our thinking. Or we could say, we want to leave behind all our tired old mental maps of reality and so we find ourselves asking for maps (or models, or theories) of how we might do this…
With a twist of irony that seems to go largely unnoticed, the rational mind has of late become highly interested in the practice of mindfulness. As a result, much research (a tremendous amount of research) is now being carried out on the subject; this is fine in itself but the irony is that research is all about thinking and analysing – if you do research into a subject you have to think about what you are researching (your approach, your methodology, your data) an awful lot. So in essence we’re thinking about the benefits that come about as a result of not thinking! To study a state in which the thinking mind is not centre stage with that mind as an observer is a contradiction in terms – the mind cannot study the absence of itself. The reason mindfulness is attracting so much research is because it represents a way by which we can reduce our suffering – this is of course very interesting to us. The thing about this however is that we are almost bound to distort what Buddhist practice is all about – Buddhist practice is essentially about seeing suffering and then letting go of the type of thinking and behaviour that causes it. Our secret agenda however is carry on with our materialistically-orientated thinking and at the same attempt to offset or ameliorate the suffering that it necessarily brings in its wake by practicing our own (patented) version of mindfulness!
These are all various ways of talking about the paradox that we run into when we try to use the mind to free us from the mind – when we search for a method to free us from methods, when we search for a system that will free us from systems. It is pretty much inevitable that we are going to be doing this given the fact that all we know are structures! Structures are what we have been working with all our lives – we know very well what the story is with structures (or systems) because we have been dealing with them all our lives. Sometimes we may not get very far with them, sometimes we may find that we are unable to find the key that will enable us to work successfully with them, but the point is that we understand the basic idea behind them. The basic idea or principle behind all structures, behind all systems, is that when we find the correct way to work with them, then we will be able to use them. The idea is that every system has a key and that when we have found this key then we have ‘cracked’ the system…
The prospect of working with something that is not a structure or system is on the other hand profoundly baffling to us. Because what we’re trying to get to grips isn’t a logical structure there just isn’t a key, there just isn’t a proper or right way to do it and this is utterly perplexing. Because there’s no structure to it, there’s nothing to do, and no right way to do it! When we are dealing with structures then there is always some kind of a method, some kind if a formula, some kind of a tactic or strategy that we can use and because we are so very used to relying on methods, formulae, tactic and strategies we are flatly unable to understand how we could possibly proceed without them. The difficulty – as Alan Watts says – is that we straight away assume that there is some kind of problem – we assume that there is something there which we need to change. This is what gets us caught in the paradox because we are trying to reach a state of mind that is not characterized by judging and controlling and manipulating, and yet this very ‘trying’ is the pure essence of judging and controlling and manipulating! Simply being present with the difficulty (whatever it is) without either resisting it or colluding with it, and without labelling it as a problem (or as something that either shouldn’t or should be there) goes against the grain of everything we have ever learnt…
The glitch that we always run into – whether we realize it or not – is that we are always going to try to use the thinking mind to help us to attain this ‘non-resisting’ (or ‘non-judging’) state of being. The reason this glitches us is because judging and resisting is all that the thinking mind is able to do! This is how the thinking mind operates; that’s just the type of a thing that it is – it’s a machine first for judging, and then secondly controlling in accordance with this judging. And actually ‘judging’ and ‘controlling’ are one and the same thing – they both come down to the thinking mind busily working away at imposing its pattern (i.e. its prejudices) upon the world around it! The thinking mind is promoting itself, interposing itself, consolidating itself, perpetuating itself.
The thinking mind operates by seeing one outcome as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad’ and then the next thing (which is really the same thing) is that it tries to secure the desired outcome and avoid the undesired one. First it judges, it evaluates, and then it ‘resists’ – i.e. it imposes its own pattern (its own way of seeing things, its own way of doing things) on the world around it. What more do we need to understand about the thinking mind? What more is there to understand? What could be more straightforwardly and unashamedly crude than this? The thinking mind is ‘the prejudiced judger of everything’ – all it can do is evaluate and judge, blame and complain, all it can ever do is say what’s good and say what’s bad. And when it (generously) says that something is ‘good’, what it is really doing is approving of its own inbuilt bias, its own inbuilt prejudices…
Another way of expressing this is to say that the thinking mind works on the basis of rules: a ‘rule’ is issued (just as an order is issued on a parade ground) and then (very importantly!) it is obeyed!!! So the mind is saying “Do this!” or “Do that!” It is issuing commands or instructions the whole time. It’s trying to control. This is all that it can do, that’s how it gets stuff to happen. All the thinking mind can do is say ‘Do’ or ‘Don’t Do’, ‘RIGHT’ or ‘WRONG’, ‘YES’ or ‘NO’. This is the language of logic and with the language of logic there is only room for obeying – there is no room for anything else. This is exactly like a computer programmer writing code – everything has to be written in the form of clear-cut or unambiguous instructions which are then going to be followed through ‘to the letter’. We specify what is to happen, we direct what is to happen in so that what we say should happen does happen, and what we don’t say should happen doesn’t happen…
All instructions by their very nature imply a right way and a wrong way. This is what an instruction is – it is an inequality, a dissymmetry, a clear-cut split between what is right and what is not right. Instructions are ‘rules’ in other words and rules can never be used to take us into a place beyond rules! This is the paradox which we’ve been talking about gin a nutshell. So when I say “Don’t judge!” (just to give one example of how the paradox works) this implies that ‘not-judging’ is the right thing to do and ‘judging’ is the wrong thing, and this itself is a judgement!!! Our instruction is disagreeing with itself therefore – it is turning around and flatly contradicting itself, and so how is this supposed to help us?
The same would be true if I said “Don’t resist!” – this statement is itself a form of resistance because I am trying to change the way things are. Why would I be issuing a directive in the first place if I wasn’t trying to change the way things are? The whole point of a rule, an instruction, a ‘directive’, is that it is geared towards changing things from a right way to a wrong way. That’s the whole point of the exercise – if I didn’t want to change things from being the way that they are then I wouldn’t issue an instruction in the first place. So I must want to change things, or else I would just have ‘kept my mouth shut’, so to speak. But ‘trying to change things from being the way that they are’ is resistance and resistance is – of course – the very thing that I don’t want to happen! By telling myself not to resist I am resisting and so I’m shooting myself in the foot every time.
The thinking mind itself is ‘an organized form of resistance’ – it is like a tyrant who has always been obeyed, and who one day decides that he doesn’t want to be obeyed any more. He decides that everyone should be free to ‘do what they want’. So then he orders everyone not to obey his orders any more. He orders everyone to be free – not realizing that the state of freedom can never come about as a result of an order…
STRAINING TO BE WHERE YOU ARE
This is all very well – we might argue – but if we don’t use the thinking mind (which is as we have said unashamedly military in the way that it works) to do the job for us, then what are we to use? How else are we to work towards a mindful or meditative state? Even to ask this question however (if we do ask it) shows that we have missed the point again. Mindfulness isn’t a special state that is separate from the state of consciousness that we find ourselves in. It isn’t ‘somewhere else’ but rather it is right where we already are. Whatever state of mind we are in, then that is where our mindfulness is – awareness means that we are aware of where we are, not where we aren’t!
This is actually a good way of looking at it – our normal way of being is to be focussed on ‘how we think we should be’, and so this is resistance. We’re never where we actually are – we’re always straining to be somewhere else. The thinking mind exists solely for the purpose of facilitating (or orchestrating) this straining, this supposed change. So we’re always trying (perhaps in very subtle ways) to be some way that is different from the way that we actually are. We have a notion (mind-created, of course) of some ‘special’ kind of a way that we should be. Actually however this is pure fantasy – what would the thinking mind know about a world which it itself has not made?
It doesn’t have a clue and – more than this – it is actually fundamentally uninterested in such a possibility; the thinking mind is only interested in stuff that matches its own categories, its own rules for how it imagines ‘things should be’. When the thinking mind says that it is interested in mindfulness it is actually lying therefore! As P.D Ouspensky says, when the false personality claims to be interested in ‘self-remembering’ this is only a scam. It will engage in all sorts of activities that are supposed to be about self-remembering but which are – in reality – only time-wasting decoys or diversions.
This is how it is with the thinking mind – the thinking mind is fundamentally incapable of being interested in things as they actually are. It couldn’t be less interested. The thinking mind is fundamentally incapable of curiosity – it is fundamentally incapable of being interested in the present moment. There is nothing in the present moment for it, because it is only about changing things, and the present moment is not something that can be changed. There is no role for thought here.
But who we are in ourselves is interested and is curious. Who we are in our essence is always open and curious and non-controlling – and so all we need to be able to do is to see clearly the difference between who (or what) the thinking mind tells us we are, and who we really are…
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.