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The Pain of Not Being Here

What lies behind anger and self-loathing and impatience and frustration and sulking and jealousy and envy and greed and resentment and bitterness and all the rest of it is the pain of not being here. This tends to come across as a rather exotic kind of an idea for us because we’re really not used to thinking in these terms. We’re much more used to thinking in terms of something being wrong or something needing fixing. I think that I’m here alright, but that there is something about my external situation that isn’t right! I certainly don’t see my suffering as resulting from the way in which I’m just plain ‘absent in myself’, the way I’m just not here at all…



If the mental pain that I am experiencing is the pain of ‘not being here’ then there is no use in thinking in terms of ‘fixing the problem’. Trying to fix stuff (or control stuff) is what makes us not present in the first place. Thinking about stuff makes us not present. So how do you fix ‘not being here’ when the attempt to fix the problem is only going to make us even less present in ourselves? And if I’m not here – which I’m not – then who is it that’s thinking about fixing the problem anyway? The thought that I need to fix the problem is arising out of my absence, not my presence. The thought that ‘there is something wrong’ is arising out of my absence.



The key to everything is being present in our lives, being present in whatever it is that is going on. Thus, in mindfulness, it is said that learning to be present in the face of difficulties slowly but surely reduces the amount of ‘unnecessary suffering’ that we are going through. It restores our sense of humour to us – it restores all of our joyful and creative human qualities to us. And yet ‘not being present’ isn’t a problem to be fixed or an error to be corrected – just as we try to fix all other problems, correct all other errors – it is a difficulty that we can learn to be present with.



Not being present is the root cause of most of our troubles in life – if not all of them. As we have said, the problem isn’t that there is something wrong with us, something that needs fixing – the ‘problem’ is that we have unwittingly absented ourselves. The ‘problem’ is that we are no longer dealing consciously with life. Instead, we are dealing with life by withdrawing from it and hiding behind a mechanical shell of automatic judgements and automatic reactions. We absent ourselves and rely on a bunch of reflex reactions to defend ourselves. We nominate the insensitive, mechanical, rule-based self to take over the job!



Another way to put this is to say that we have ‘handed over responsibility for living life’ to various automatisms – which then proceed to do the job for us on our behalf without our say-so. The automatisms are given free rein to do as they please, to run the ship as they see best, and the fact that automatisms have no sense of their own (being purely mechanical in nature) and invariably lead us astray (and eventually run us onto the rocks) is something we have zero insight into. We don’t have any insight into the utter folly of ‘handing over responsibility’ in this way because the mechanical reflexes don’t provide us with any worthwhile insights – all the mechanical reflexes provide us with is constant spurious validation of whatever procedures they are carrying out on our behalf, supposedly for our benefit…



This business of handing over responsibility to various assorted automatisms happens continuously, from minute to minute. It happens all the time. It happens every time we think something! This is after all how the thinking process works – we try out a particular way of looking at the world and ‘go along with it’ to see what happens when we do so, to see how it works out, so to speak. What we’re essentially doing in thinking therefore is making the experiment of handing over responsibility for how to see the world to a particular viewpoint – we allow ourselves to see reality as it would be if it were the case that the viewpoint in question was the only viewpoint. We make the experiment of limiting reality, in other words, and then we act as there is no such experiment going on…



‘Limiting our view’ always has to be done in an intentional kind of a way, as an experiment in information-reduction. Limitation is always intentional because that’s not the way reality is of itself. Or we could say that breaking up the big picture up into partial (or fragmentary) views, is always going to be intentional, is always going to be something that we have to go out of our way to arrange. The big picture is the ‘unmodified’ view – it is the natural way of things. Fragments – or parts – are, on the other hand, brought about via an intentional act, an act of volition. We can ‘break’ symmetry via an intention act but we cannot put it back together again this way! This can only happen naturally – whilst the path away from wholeness is purposeful, being made up of a series of directed processes, the path back is always spontaneous.  



When we break symmetry with our cognitive processes, with our thinking, what happens is that we end up with a multitude of fragmented rational perspectives, each one of which is ‘closed’, each one of which implicitly sees itself to be not fragmented! Each rational perspective functions as a ‘virtual whole’, a ‘virtual totality’, therefore. The ‘experiment’ that we have been talking about is thus the experiment in which we ‘accept the terms’ of the rational perspective that we are trying out, and see what it is like to live in the virtual world that is generated by that limited perspective as if it were the Whole, as if it were the Totality of everything, as if there weren’t anything else apart from this…



When we carry out this experiment we necessarily lose sight of the fact that it is an experiment. This is as we have said an essential part of the experiment. We don’t see that it is an exercise in ‘make believe’ – we see it as just being ‘the way things are’, which means that we don’t see it at all. If I were to try out a particular limited way of looking at the world and remain aware the whole time of what I am doing then this would be a different matter – in this case my thoughts about the world would be ironic rather than literal (which is to say, they would be ‘conscious’ thoughts rather than ‘unconscious’ thoughts since I wouldn’t actually be believing them at the same time as thinking them.) I would be aware that I was thinking and I would be aware that my thoughts are only thoughts and that they are not therefore real!



This kind of thing happens only very rarely however! Normally we’re ‘going along with the simulation’ – we are in the situation of ‘believing our thoughts as soon as we think them’. We go along with the mind-created story. To be conscious of ourselves thinking is a big deal – it is like remaining conscious when a lot of anaesthetic gas is being pumped into the room. Normally we’re not conscious of ourselves thinking, we’re just thinking. We’re lost in our thinking, we’re ‘thinking without realizing that we’re thinking’ and we spend most of our lives in this state. This is in fact how Eckhart Tolle describes the human condition, as being ‘lost in thought’!



When we are lost in thought our thoughts are opaque to us, we can’t see through them. Because we can’t see through them we’re trapped in them – we get influenced by them in such a complete way that we can’t get away from them. We get defined and determined by them. Just to give one very simple and obvious example of this, if I get upset by a thought then this thought effectively ‘sticks’ to me and determines how I consequently feel and think (as well as possibly determining what I do). The upsetting thought elicits a reaction from me (because I am taking it seriously, because I think that it is real) and this reaction is what is preventing me from letting me from letting go of the thought. I am now using the thought to define my mental state, which means that I can’t go beyond the thought. If I didn’t take the thought seriously (if I wasn’t playing the game of believing that the thoughts are real, which is a bit like thinking that the stereotyped characters in a soap opera are real) then as Pema Chodron says I would just smile at it. There would be humour there instead of flat, insightless, mechanical ‘reacting’. I would consciously recognize the thought as only being a thought and so it wouldn’t define my reality for me…



As we’ve said, being able to smile at our thoughts instead of being trapped by them is a very unusual kind of a thing. The world is a very different place when we are able to smile at our thoughts! After all, the world as we generally know it is made up of our thoughts – it is made up of all the thoughts we take seriously and can’t as a result see through. My literally-understood thoughts constitute the world for me and they also constitute what I see as my identity. When we see through the thoughts that we usually automatically react to this equals ‘getting rid of like and dislike,’ and when we ‘get rid of like and dislike’ both the concrete, matter-of-fact world that we know so well and the concrete, matter-of-fact identity that we take so much for granted dissolve into an infinitely more spacious (i.e. less determined) situation. This is the spaciousness of non-definition – the spaciousness that unfolds so marvellously when we don’t have to say what everything literally is.



‘Not reacting’ (or ‘not being a slave to like and dislike’) doesn’t mean that ‘nothing matters’ or that we become ‘distant’ or ‘removed’ from life, which is the preconception we very much tend to have about the state of equanimity, it simply means that we’re free to be interested in the stuff that really matters to us rather than being compelled to be concerned about the stuff that our thinking tells us matters! It means that we are no longer narrowly and humourlessly preoccupied with the formulaic dramas and stereotyped issues that our mechanical thinking is so busily manufacturing for us on a full-time basis. It means that we are not forced to concern ourselves with mind-created illusions the whole time.



Pretty obviously ‘like and dislike’ is all about my own personal agenda (its all about me) and the world – when it is seen entirely in terms of my agenda, when it is seen entirely in terms of me – is narrow and tedious in the extreme. It’s got to be because there’s nothing in it apart from what I like and what I don’t like, what I want and what I don’t want! When this is the case I’m not really interested in the world, I’m only interested in me. Dropping ‘like and dislike’, therefore, means rediscovering what it feels like to be genuinely interested in the world – which is to say, rediscovering what it feels like to be seeing the world without a narrow ‘selfish’ agenda…



The question is – what does it mean to be in the world but only interested in the world in terms of what it means to me? What does it mean to be ‘unconsciously absorbed’ in this way, to be dully fixated upon one’s own tedious projections? Clearly, this means that I am not really here at all! I’m only there in terms of ‘me relating to my projections as if they are not my projections’ and this is just a way of not being there at all since ‘me relating to my own projections’ is a null-situation. It’s a closed loop. To use the familiar terminology for this sort of thing, to be relating to one’s own projections as if they were not one’s own projections is to be asleep. We’re snoozing!



When the only thing I ever take any notice of is my own positive and negative projections (which elicit in me the automatic reactions of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’) then this means that I am sublimely oblivious to the real world – which has nothing whatsoever to do with my likes and dislikes. I’m caught up in a closed world, a private world and the nature of this ‘private world’ is that it is not actually real. We could say that this private world is unreal because it is a mere tautology (a mere closed loop) or we could say that it is unreal because it is at all times a perfectly self-cancelling (or self-nullifying) situation. This is inherent in the fact that I am reacting to my own projections as if they had an independent or self-existent reality, as if they were not my own ‘doings’, my own ‘constructs’. I am saying that there is a gap between myself and my projections, a gap which would make all the difference in the world if it were actually there, but there is no such gap. It’s all just me…



It is as if an event happens, at my own instigation, and I experience this event as a pleasant or agreeable surprise. But since it was me who created this event all along (because it was me who set the whole thing up, like a man arranging a surprise party for himself) this feeling of being ‘agreeably surprised’ is a complete cheat. It’s pretending to be something that it isn’t. Because it’s a cheat, because it’s pretending to be something that it isn’t, there has to be some kind of short-fall further down the line, there has to be some kind of ‘downside’, some kind of price that needs to be paid later on. To use J. G. Bennett’s term, there has to be some kind of compensation happening further down the line. The way that the cheat gets ‘compensated’ for is very simple – the experience of being agreeably surprised must be balanced by the experience of being disagreeably surprised later on!



Pleasure is balanced out with pain, satisfaction by dissatisfaction, optimistic or hopeful anticipation by pessimistic or fearful anticipation. Euphoria (which is the pleasure we get from believing in an attractive illusion) is balanced by dysphoria (which is the pain we get from believing in an aversive or repellent illusion). The ‘balance’ (i.e. the effective self-cancellation) can never be broken because the total situation (which is the closed situation of the self reacting to its own negative and positive projections as if they were objective facts occurring in a separate external reality) is at all times a perfectly sterile one…



This is just another way of saying that meaningful change can never take place in a closed system. This is what the term ‘a closed system’ means, after all – it means that the only stuff that can happen is the stuff that’s already in it! Obviously nothing new can happen in a closed system – that would be a violation of the terms of the system! When a system is said to be closed this means that everything that goes on within it must obey the rules that have been set up to govern that system. In a closed system there is only ever going to be more of the same, more of the same, more of the same. There is security inherent in a closed system therefore, but by the same token there is also sterility inherent in it.



We could also say that when a system is closed there is no such thing as ‘non-returning movement’ in it – any sort of movement that does happen is only ever going to be the first half of a returning or reversing movement and so there is never any genuine movement on a bigger scale of things, only the small or partial scale. As we have said, in a closed system the only sort of change that is possible is change that obeys the rules governing the system – and these rules themselves however do not change. Really, everything we do in a closed system comes down to ‘trying to pull ourselves up by our own shoe-laces’: I can pull as hard as I like but the harder I pull up the more my two feet are pushing down in order to obtain the leverage to enable myself to pull up! This is of course an example of Newton’s third law of motion, which is stated in the Wikipedia entry as follows:


When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.


I might conceivably (by some sort of contortion) be able to introduce some kind of jerkiness, some kind of vibration to the picture but the thing about this is that any apparent upwards movement will inevitably be cancelled out a bit later on by an equal and opposite downwards movement.



In an analogous way, we can say that in the closed domain of the fragmented rational perspective everything always ‘cancels out’. We can introduce a vibration – a brief time-lag between action and reaction – but that’s the best we can do. All actions are self-cancelling, all movements are self-cancelling, all thoughts are self-cancelling. Nothing ever comes to anything and this is precisely what it means to be closed. There is ‘the appearance of getting somewhere’ and then there is the inevitable return, the inevitable reversal. The net movement (or change) is always zero. The books are always going to be balanced and so the ‘content’ of the virtual world, the ‘content’ of the simulation is always going to be nil. Believing in the appearance of this content is what creates the ‘invisible absence’ at the core of the everyday self – we believe in something that isn’t there! We accord what isn’t there top status, over-ruling or over-riding status. We hold on tight to ‘what isn’t there’ as if it were the most important thing, the most precious of things and as a result of this dogged ‘holding on’ to what isn’t real we thoroughly exclude what actually is real.



To be trapped in a fragmentary rational perspective, a particular limited way of seeing the world, and not knowing that it is fragmentary, not knowing that it is limited, is to be converted from being present to being absent. This state of being ‘hypnotized by the unreal’ is what causes ‘the pain of not being here’. If we could only see the pain of not being here where it belongs then all would be well but instead of this what almost always happens is that we see the pain where it doesn’t belong, in some kind of altered or refracted form. So in the case of anger, we could say that I see the pain in terms of the wrong that someone has done me: I contrive to see a fault in someone else, and then I hang my own unacknowledged or unowned pain on this hook. Or even if someone has done me wrong (which can also happen!) I bring all my extra, unacknowledged pain into the equation and lay all this on them as well. I lay everything at the door of the other person, and by doing so I feel momentarily relieved of the burden that I am carrying, but do not know that I am carrying…



I can of course equally well be angry with myself but this is in no way different because when I am angry with myself (or when I blame myself or hate myself) it is because I am angry with myself (or blame or hate myself) for not being present. Recriminating against myself (or hating myself) for not being present doesn’t of course improve matters in any way – in fact it adds to the pain of not being there since anger and judgementalism makes us even more absent from ourselves – but this is the nature of trap I am caught in.



In the case of bitterness I lay the pain that I’m in at the door of some person (or some group of people or at door of the world in general) and the only difference here is that the anger has hardened into a permanent belief. Probably the easiest state of mind to understand in this way is greed (or intense desire) – in this case instead of perceiving the lack or deficit where it belongs, inside me, I project it outwards and see it in the form of an external prize or treasure, which – when attained – will miraculously assuage all my ills!



With frustration, I am besides myself with impatience over whatever it is that is preventing me from obtaining the goal that I am fixated on, as if this obstacle were the only thing standing between me and the supreme state of satisfaction that is going to come my way just as soon as I attain the goal. This ‘supreme satisfaction’ is of course purely a projection on my par since I am not in any way addressing the real root of my chronic dissatisfaction, which has of course nothing to do with whether I am able to attain some random, trivial goal or not! My chronic dissatisfaction is going to be there anyway, as is my impatience. Jealousy – we may say – is when I know on some level that ‘I don’t have the good stuff’ and I strongly suspect that someone else has it (when I should be having it), and envy is another version of this same distorted perception.



All of the so-called ‘negative emotions’ can be seen in terms of my authentic inner pain being safely deflected onto some external event or situation. Whenever we feel bad about ourselves, hard done-by, belittled, insulted, slighted, treated unfairly, etc, it is always a deflection of ‘the pain of not being here’. Whenever we are aggressive, competitive, arrogant, violent, abusive, controlling and so on it is also because of this awareness of our own inner deficiency, only in these cases we are trying to compensate for it by acting out.



In general, whenever we feel as if we are – to use the colloquial term – some kind of a loser, this is because we are tuning in, in an indirect or deflected kind of a way, to the pain of not being here. And when we feel like a winner (which is of course the ultimate societal goal) it is because we have temporarily succeeded in denying the pain of not being here, because we have temporarily gotten rid of the ubiquitous feeling of being a loser! Therefore, whether we feel like a loser or feel like a winner it is still all about the pain of not being here. It’s never not about the pain of not being here, which is something we just can’t escape from!



Being present however changes everything. Being present changes the very foundation of everything, the very basis of everything. Being present means going beyond loss and gain, beyond wrong and right, beyond losing and winning…





Image: Paintbrush Warrior by Mark Henson (taken from Optimally Addicted)






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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