The everyday mind is very often a bad advisor. It is rather like a ‘friend’ (or rather a ‘sort of a friend’) who needs a sidekick, for whatever reason, and so hangs around with you all the time. Maybe this so-called friend likes to complain, or to be cynical, or to have someone to give their opinion on everything to, or give their dubious advice to, or show off how much they know. Or perhaps it just needs to gossip, or chatter aimlessly, and so it needs you because it needs someone to gossip to, chatter to, complain to, or give its opinion or advice to, and so on.
Obviously this isn’t a great sort of a friend to have because you aren’t getting anything out of the arrangement. They get the satisfaction of doing whatever it is they do, complaining about life or gossiping or whatever, but all you get is to be the person who has to listen to them, the person who has to put up with their bad advice, their pointless chatter, or their moaning. You get to be the long-suffering stooge.
It also goes without saying that listening to this ‘friend’ doesn’t help you in the least. Listening to all the negative, cynical stuff just gets you down, and the advice and opinions aren’t any better because this ‘so-called friend’ is – not to put too fine a point on it – full of bullshit. He doesn’t know a damn thing really. He is full of crap, full of nonsense, full of hot air, but he also thinks that every word he utters is a priceless gem, a pearl of wisdom. We all know people who are a bit like this, but the good thing is that we don’t actually have to hang around with them – at least, not if we have the sense to walk away. We can see that they are full of crap and so we don’t really take any heed of them. We certainly don’t allow them to follow us around everywhere we go filling our heads with their nonsense.
This is not the case however for the bad advisor which is the everyday mind. This everyday mind can sometimes be just like the so-called friend that we have been talking about, only a good deal worse. The everyday mind is worse for two reasons – it is worse firstly because we can’t get away from it and the only time it leaves us is when we go to sleep, and secondly because we never ever see through it, no matter how much nonsense it comes out with…
It sounds strange to say that the everyday, or ‘rational’ mind, is very often a bad advisor. It sounds strange because we trust this mind implicitly. The everyday mind is like a Sat Nav which talks us through everything we do, guiding us in its reassuringly confident voice in matters that are important just as much as it guides us in matters that are unimportant. The Sat Nav is a useful device – if we happen to be driving in an unfamiliar city or country then it is all but invaluable. It does have a downside, however, and the downside is that we can get so used to letting it guide us that we grow dependent upon it, and complacent in the sense that we trust it without ever checking to make sure what it is telling us to do makes sense.
There have been cases of satellite navigation systems guiding cars to drive into a river, because their data-base did not contain the all-important fact that the bridge which used to be there has now been demolished, and no longer exists. It is understandable that the system doesn’t know this fact because no one told it, and it can only go on the information that it has been programmed with, but it is less understandable to see how human drivers with functioning senses can drive straight into a river! The reason is of course because the driver in question has grown accustomed to trusting the machine rather than his own senses, which is something that is almost inevitable to some extent. Human nature is such that if we have an ‘easy’ alternative to thinking for ourselves, an alternative that seems to work 99.99% of the time, we will grow habituated to relying on it instead of relying upon our own wits and senses.
So our predicament is that we have grown dependent upon a mechanism which can turn faulty, and which will then – as a result – mislead us instead of giving us helpful advice. The ways in which the device of the everyday mind can turn faulty are very varied and are in some cases much more obvious than others. If the thinking mind is constantly telling me that things are going to go wrong when there is no real reason for it to jump to this conclusion than this is one common form of ‘misguidance’. This, needless to say, is the form of misguidance called anxiety.
Another very common way for our thinking to turn against us is when it starts telling us that we are ‘not good enough’, that we are useless, that we are stupid or bad, that we are ‘failing to meet the required standard for being a decent human being’. Every time we do not successfully reach the standard that our thinking tells us we ought to attain then it labels us as being worthless, stupid, a failure, and so on. When we find ourselves regularly thinking about ourselves in this sort of negative or self-critical way we are said to be suffering from low self-esteem. In the case of both anxiety and low self-esteem we often try to cure the problem by getting the automatic mechanism of the mind to ‘turn around’ again and make helpful or positive statements instead of the negative, unhelpful sort but this tactic is no help at all in the long run because it is still based on handing over responsibility to the thinking mechanism. It is still based on trusting the unreliable advisor.
The point we are making is that because we have trained ourselves to believe whatever it is that the thinking mind tells us then when it starts giving us misleading messages like these we can’t help feeling that they must be true. We can’t help thinking that they’re true even if on another level we can see that what our mind is telling us ‘doesn’t make sense’. We do not see the guidance device of the mind as being merely a collection of supposedly helpful mental programs (or ‘reflexes’) – we take the thinking mind so much for granted that we see it as being something quite infallible, something that ‘has to be true’. This is like someone who believes that everything he reads in the newspapers or sees on the ten o’clock news ‘has to be true’. It is of course quite natural to be naïve in this way, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t become wiser as a result of our experiences and as a result ‘grow out of’ this state of innocent naivety. This too is a very natural process – like a delicate seedling growing into a mature plant, all the learning process needs is a bit of nurturing.
The ‘naïve’ attitude to our own thoughts is to automatically take them at face value, to immediately (and therefore helplessly) assume that our thoughts must be true, that are thoughts are truth, and as a result of this assumption we keep on falling into the pitfalls that they create for us. The cure for this situation is not to get rid of our thinking, or try to ‘fix’ it, but simply to become independent of it. The helpful thing to do is to take back our own autonomy so that we are no longer in the unfortunate position of having to straightaway believe everything our thoughts tell us (just like a very gullible man is in the unfortunate position of automatically having to believe every single thing he is told, no matter how foolish it is).
When we have no autonomy then we are at the mercy of every thought that comes along and this – no matter which way we look at it – is a truly disastrous situation. A thought is really just ‘a guess’ (or a ‘hypothesis’) about reality – it is never an absolute unquestionable statement of truth, which is how we are prone to taking it. Sometimes a thought will be a good guess (in which case it is useful), at other times the thought will not be a good guess and so it won’t be so useful. Or perhaps the thought was useful once, but now has simply become a useless repetition, like so much ‘mental static’. If we were to examine our thoughts we would see that most of them fall into this ‘not so useful’ or ‘pointlessly repetitive’ category. And then there is the category of ‘types of thoughts’ which are not merely useless (in the sense of being a pointless waste of time) but actually distressing for us.
Being at the mercy of every thought that comes along clearly isn’t a good position to be in, and yet this is the normal (or ‘default’) mode for most of us. The characteristic result of being controlled by our thoughts in this way is that we are forever bobbing up and down like little bits of driftwood on a choppy sea – a positive or optimistic thought comes along and we are ‘up’, and then a negative thought comes along and we are ‘down’. If we were to stop and reflect on this for a while we would see that there is something rather ridiculous and undignified about this whole business because our whole view of the world (along our whole sense of ourselves) gets completely re-orientated every time some random thought happens to come along. How is it, we might wonder, that we are so flimsy, so ungrounded, so remarkably lacking in stability that any little thought that comes into our heads can have such a dramatic effect? Why is it that we are so vulnerable to something that is at root nothing more than a random mechanical process?
The answer to this question is in essence very simple. As we have said, the reason we are so much at the mercy of the thinking process is because we have handed over our power to it, given up our autonomy to it. And the reason we are so very keen to hand over responsibility to the thinking process is because we don’t like uncertainty, we don’t like ‘not knowing’. We don’t like not having a definite (i.e. ‘black-and-white’) picture of things. Reality itself however is never defined, any more than a flowing stream is defined, but because we don’t like staying open to the flowing uncertainty of reality we automatically retreat into our static, black-and-white thinking, even when believing automatically in this all-or-nothing ‘categorical thinking’ mechanism causes us huge amounts of suffering as a result.
To be in tune with a dynamic or living reality is to be able to allow it to unfold as it will, to allow it to unfold in whatever way it is going to unfold. All this requires of us – basically – is to stay out of it. This principle is very simply explained: It’s not up to us how things unfold. It’s not our business, it’s not our responsibility. We don’t know how the process of reality is going to unfold and so we just ‘wait and see’. That’s all we can do – we pay attention to what’s happening with open-minded curiosity. The principle is easy to understand, but not so easy to put into practice.
These two scenarios – ‘micromanaging the process’ and ‘allowing the process to unfold in its own way, in whichever way it is going to’ obviously represent two very different approaches, two diametrically opposed mind-sets. The first approach is all about leaving no space around the process, since if there is space then there is always the possibility of uncertainty creeping in. To prevent this happening we crowd the process, we get on top of it, we stand over it, we cover all the angles, and so on. The second approach is all about giving the process some space so it can happen naturally. We’re not interfering, so we’re not imposing our own assumptions and expectations and ideas upon something which we don’t know anything about anyway. We’re not trying to control something that is beyond us.
Option 1 – ‘crowding’, or ‘taking away all space’ – is what we automatically do. It is second nature – we do it without thinking. We don’t even notice we are doing it. Option 2 generally doesn’t come so easily – in fact it goes against the grain so much that even if we wanted to give the process some space to unfold we would probably find that we can’t do it. We’re so used to controlling everything that we can’t just turn around at the drop of a hat and give the habit up. It’s a way of life, it’s the habit of a life-time; it’s how we work, and so rather than giving things the time and space to develop and unfold as they naturally will, we unfailing take it over. We unfailingly hijack the process and thereby block it.
The reason we take away all the space is because we are afraid not to. We get rid of all the space because this is how we get our sense of security in life. We feel safe the way, we feel secure when we have got rid of all the uncertainty. Physically controlling what is going on around us is one way in which we optimize our sense of security, but more importantly than this is the way in which we mentally control everything. We try to mentally control the world by unreflectively imposing our framework of understanding upon the world so that if something is to happen, then it has to happen in accordance with our ideas about how things should happen. This is really just another way of saying that we trust our black-and-white, cut-and-dried thinking about reality more than we trust reality itself. Our thoughts are definite, they are clear-cut, they are concrete, and this certainty gives the feeling of security that we are so very keen to have, the feeling of security that we are in fact addicted to.
Feeling that we need to have a definite understanding of the world is what makes us so very quick to hand over responsibility to the automatic thinking process, the process that mechanically describes and predicts the world for us. We hand over entirely to this process and as a result we are entirely at it’s mercy. This automatic thinking process may run us ragged, it may drag us through the hedge backwards, repeatedly, it may put us through all sorts of anxiety and self-recrimination, but just so long as we are unwilling to let go the security of having a definite description of what is happening, we are chained to mechanical process of it. Until we are ready to give up the security we have no choice but to keep on following our thoughts wherever they might lead. We have no choice but to keep on bobbing up and down all the time like the bit of driftwood floating on a stormy sea.
When we have been though the mill enough times, when we have had our fill of pointless mind-created suffering and are finally ready to let go of the false sense of security that is costing us so dearly, then all we need to do is to learn to let things be as they are without saying what they are (or without predicting what they will be) and all of the incessant non-stop thinking will start to fall away from us. Really we are faced with a straight choice – hold onto the reassuring but ultimately false security created by the thinking process and pay dearly for this sense of security, or let go of it, and be free from the need to pay the exorbitant price.
We can look at this – as we can look at everything in psychology – in terms of ‘pain’ and ‘pain-avoidance’. The pain we wish to avoid is the type of pain or fear known as ‘existential’ (or ‘ontological’) insecurity. This has to do with our fundamental unwillingness to confront what we might call ‘unstructured space’, or ‘ungrounded change’. Rather than deal with unstructured space – which is the actual nature of things – we overlay reality with our black and white categories, with our fixed descriptions of the world, and deal with this instead. It is this refusal to deal with reality as it is (as we have said) that makes us into the helpless puppets of the rational-conceptual mind. If we don’t want to deal with radical uncertainty, then we have to commit ourselves to being the helpless slaves of the thinking process, and that is all there is to it. If on the other hand we are willing (or have some degree of willingness) to open ourselves up to the fundamental uncertainty of life, then we are free from the conditioned need to take our thinking so very seriously.
When we cease to take our thinking with deadly humourless seriousness, then everything transforms. As Shakespeare says (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251) “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and when we no longer believe absolutely in the literal truth of whatever thought happens to be ‘knocking on the door’, so to speak, then things stop being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and become what they actually are instead. And what things actually are is an ungrounded process of change, a never-ending river of flux or transformation with no fixed labels, with no good and no bad in it. When we refrain from categorizing everything the world and everything in it becomes interesting, it becomes full of wonder and mystery. Even our own pain becomes interesting, even our own pain becomes full of wonder and mystery, and so too does the fact of our existential pain, the pain of our core nonnegotiable ‘ontological insecurity’.
Anxiety is the inevitable consequence of the absolute (i.e. ‘unyieldingly rigid’) nature of our mental categories, which are generally the only way of relating to the world that we have. Our rational (or ‘categorical’) mind is our constant companion, as well as being our infallible guide or advisor with regard to what is going on with the world, and what is going on with us. It tells us in no uncertain terms what the world is about and what we are about. The only problem – as we have been saying all along – is that this mind, this companion or advisor isn’t really so infallible at all, even though we find it all but impossible to ever question its guidance or ‘advice’.
Just to make this point one more time – the reason the rational or categorical mind is not merely fallible but actually fundamentally fallible is because it is in its essence rigid and black-and-white (i.e. either something is good or it is bad, either something is right or it is wrong, either I am a success or I am a failure, and so on) whilst reality itself is not made up of categories. Reality itself is constantly changing, constantly flowing, forever unfolding in a new and unpredictable way…
The ‘answer’ to anxiety is therefore to allow reality to change, flow, or unfold as it will (not that we could forbid it or prevent it from doing so anyway). This as we have said represents an unprecedented change in attitude for us, but it is nevertheless a change that can occur gently, if only we can find it in ourselves to assent to it – at least in principle – rather than stubbornly resisting it at every turn, which is what we almost always do.
A simple practical way to practice our assent (i.e. our willingness to ‘go along’ with a transformative process which we don’t and can’t understand) is to actually pay attention to the way our thinking is always trying to ‘seize control’ of everything, the way it is saying what everything ‘is’ the whole time, as a way of scrabbling desperately for ontological security. We don’t have to fight against this automatic ‘control reflex’ – we just observe that it is happening. Fighting against it would only be ‘more of the same’.
To actually notice how we are constantly, insistently trying to hold on to everything with our thoughts is a new thing – it is a revolutionarily new perspective on what it going on in anxiety. Anxiety is, we might say, an ‘extreme’ form of holding on – it is the situation where the more we try to hold on, the more what we are trying to hold onto threatens to get away from us.
Being aware of what is going on here is freeing – by seeing ourselves trying to control everything with our static thoughts and seeing why (seeing why we are clamping down so hard on everything) we naturally start to loosen up a bit. Bring awareness to any painful knot of unconsciousness always loosens that knot, given time, because lack of awareness is what created the knot in the first place. The absence of awareness is the root cause of all the trouble, all the suffering. By being aware of this lack, this absence we remedy the situation, slowly but surely.
By being aware that our normal (unconscious) way of being is to be constantly turning our back on reality as it actually is, and instead of attending to reality we are giving all our attention to the series of static representations provided for us by endlessly turning wheel of the machinery of thought, we become ‘wise to our own game’ and when we become wise to our own game we no longer feel the need to play 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.