Nondual Psychology

People sometimes say something to the effect that whilst we can’t necessarily control what happens around us, we can control our reactions to what happens and herein lies our freedom. That’s what we have to work on, in other words – our ‘non-reacting’. This is a familiar enough meme to see doing the rounds on social media sites and – supposedly – it represents an empowering message for us, as is generally the way with such memes.

 

The only problem here is that it isn’t true. It isn’t at all true – we don’t have any control over our reactions and if we were to try to (which of course we very often do) then we would simply be ‘reacting to our own reactions’, which is hardly going to help matters! What makes us think that our reactions are any different to all the other events taking place in our life, after all? What makes them special? There is a rather big ‘unwarranted assumption’ going on here…

 

Our freedom doesn’t lie in attempting to control our reactions to events that are outside of our control. That’s just a straitjacket. All controlling of whatever kind takes away our freedom – controlling arises out of the need to control and ‘needs’ equal – obviously enough – the ‘absence of freedom’. The idea that by acting out of the absence of freedom we can somehow give rise to freedom is, needless to say, utterly absurd. Freedom cannot come out of the lack of freedom; unless there is freedom there right at the beginning then all we will ever do is perpetuate our state of inner slavery, whilst hoping all the while that something is somehow going to change for the better as a result of us ‘persisting in our folly’. This – in a nutshell – is the difference between ‘dual’ (i.e. conventional) and ‘nondual’ psychology – conventional psychology says (in a very serious way) that we can control ourselves whilst nondual psychology laughs and says that we can’t

 

Odd though it may sound to say it, our reactions have as little to do with us as all the other events that are happening around us. They are also ‘events’ and they also can’t be controlled. All events are – ultimately – not subject to our controlling, not subject to our ‘say-so’. Sometimes we can of course be apparently effective in our controlling, but what we usually fail to see is that – generally speaking – the only reason we are controlling in the first place is because we are ‘not free not to control’. The only reason we are controlling is because we are being ‘controlled by the need to control’, in other words. So in this case even if we do ‘control successfully’ we are still only ‘being a slave’. Life when we are basing everything on control has only the two basic possibilities in it – [1] is where we are successful within the terms of the narrow game we are playing and get ‘a pat on the back’, and [2] is where we fail at the game we are playing and get punished instead. Needless to say, neither of these two possibilities have anything to do with freedom!

 

So when we think that everything is about controlling, and how effectively we are able to control, we have fallen into a trap. As a result of being in this trap we are going to be constantly upset when things don’t happen the way we want them to (or the way we think they ought to) and when we get upset in this way we sometimes try to placate ourselves by telling ourselves that whilst we can’t always control the things that happen in our life, we can control how we react to them. In this way we fall into ‘the trap of controlling’ (or ‘the trap of thinking we need to control’) all over again. We try to avoid one trap by falling into another one and we imagine that this (i.e. controlling ourselves rather than controlling the world) is somehow a more ‘spiritual’ approach to life.

 

The thing that we find so extraordinarily hard to understand – even though it is at the same time so very simple – is that we are ‘an event’ just as everything else in the world is ‘an event’. The universe itself is ‘an event’, and so is everything in it. We can’t (in any ultimate way) control the events on the outside of us and neither can we exert control over ‘the event that is us’! If we could see this then we might be able to accord ‘ourselves’ the basic respect that we (possibly) give to other events. We might accord ‘ourselves’ the respect we (possibly) accord the universe itself. The point is that we just can’t see this however; we can’t come anywhere close to seeing this – instead of seeing who I am as essentially ‘an event’ I see who I am as ‘myself’, and this is another type of thing entirely! We take a type of proprietorial attitude to ourselves (naturally enough) – we claim ownership of ourselves, in other words, which is rather an odd thing to do, when we reflect on it. There is a type of ‘taking things for granted’ type of attitude here that is very different to the respect we might accord some marvellous event that clearly has nothing to do with us. If we could only have this type of awareness about ‘ourselves’ then how very different things would be! It’s quite unimaginable (from our normal everyday perspective) how very different things would be then…

 

When we say – as we did just now – that events can’t really be controlled in any ultimate sense of the word then this of course isn’t going to make a hell of a lot of sense. What else do we doing life apart from control (or attempt to control) things anyway? We are stuck in ‘control-mode’ pretty much all of the time and that’s why we have this nasty habit, in our Western culture, of seeing people as either being ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’, as being either ‘winners’ or ‘losers’. We absolutely don’t see any problem with the ‘paradigm of control’ at all, and yet there IS a problem. There’s a problem whether we see it or not – there’s a kind of gremlin at work behind the scenes that emerges at key moments. There’s a ‘killer glitch’, just waiting to unfold! The confusion that we suffer from arises because of the way control seems to work so well in such a simple, straightforward cases as ‘steering the car’ or ‘choosing what to wear when we go out for a night on the town’ or ‘deciding what we want to cook for dinner’.

 

In these cases we can control without any problem – if I want to cook curry and rice for my dinner then I can have curry and rice, and if I want to cook roast chicken and mashed potatoes then I can have roast chicken and mashed potatoes and there’s no problem here. I get what I want and that they are no repercussions, no nasty surprises to contend with. It’s when it comes to the bigger picture that control no longer works so straightforwardly however – it does work, after a fashion, but only at a price. I can choose to grow either cabbages or beetroot in my back garden and the choice is entirely mine, but when I try to ‘manage’ the whole ecosystem things quickly start to go very badly out of control! The same is true of the human body – when we try to manage the processes taking place in the body by placing more and more reliance on medication (to give another example) then unwanted side-effects quickly build up, that in turn need to be managed. As Ivan Illich points out in Medical Nemesis, when we try to manage (or ‘medicalize’) the whole of human life so as to achieve a desirable standard of health then what we achieve is not actually ‘health’ at all but its exact opposite.

 

Generally speaking, taking ‘society as a whole’ an example, we can say that when we collectively try to manage life and ‘standardise’ it in some way (which we need to do if we are to manage it) then the result is not life at all but some highly ‘unsatisfactory version or analogue’ of life that we then have to spend a lot of time validating and maintaining for ourselves. We will have to repeatedly reassure ourselves that we are ‘living life as it should be lived’ (or that we are ‘having a good time’) even though the truth is that we aren’t at all. We’re actually living a parody of life. By taking control of everything (or rather by trying to take control of everything) we inevitably spoil it, we inevitably ruin things for ourselves. Life itself, in its very nature, is a ‘letting go’, so how do we imagine that ‘trying to take control of it’ is ever going to work out well for us? Life itself is ‘a risk that we have to take‘ so where exactly do we imagine that we are going with our ‘wall-to-wall risk avoidance’ – the ‘wall-to-wall risk avoidance’ that is modern life?

 

The bottom line is that processes of life or of nature cannot be controlled in any ultimate sense and that they’re not meant to be. Freedom lies not in controlling what’s going on ‘successfully rather than unsuccessfully’ but in realising that – at the end of the day – we can’t control it. This insight is freedom! If something happens that I don’t want to happen (if some outcome that I’m negatively attached to comes to pass) then I am in all probability going to negatively react to this and if I have any degree of self-awareness then my negative reaction to the unwanted event is itself going to constitute ‘an unwanted event’ and this is going to tempt me either to attempt to exert control on them, or blame myself for not being able to control them (which is the flip-side of the coin of control). Both of these responses equal ‘resistance’ (or ‘aggression’) and as such they feed into (or aggravate) the underlying issue rather than curing it. And if I try to either ‘accept’ my involuntary reaction to control the situation (or accept my reaction of blaming myself for not being able to control it) then this too will constitute resistance/aggression and so this too will aggravate the underlying issue. I can’t get out of the mess this easily just by using ‘acceptance’ as a tactic!

 

What does help however is to see that both what happens ‘on the inside’ and ‘what happens on the outside’ are independent events and that ‘thinking that we ought to be able to control independent events’ is a suffering-producing delusion’! Thinking that we ought to be able to control life (or control ourselves) is a suffering-producing delusion and it very much helps to see this. We are looking at things in a completely deluded way when we think this and out of our deludedness no good can come. Out of delusion comes attachment and identification, which means that we are going to be ‘hooked on controlling‘, whilst out of awareness comes ‘freedom from the false need to control’ that comes out of identification. Realising that there never was any question of being able to ‘control our reactions’ (and thus supposedly gaining freedom from all the external factors that are controlling how we feel) doesn’t mean that our reactions are then going to continue unchecked (or that they become more exaggerated or violent in their intensity), which is what we always tend to think. Quite the reverse is true – when we realise that there isn’t some kind of supposed ‘external agent’ outside of the-event-which-is-who-we-are that needs to be controlling the event, then peacefulness comes back into the picture – peacefulness being (of course) the one thing that can never be arrived at by controlling!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Negative Psychology Of Everyday Life

When we lose ourselves, and don’t know that we have lost ourselves, what happens next? What’s the story then? How does this peculiar situation work itself out? The awareness isn’t there, so we can’t find out what happens through ‘direct appreciation’ of the fact, so to speak, and yet we will still find out one way or another, sooner or later.

 

How could we lose something as big as ‘who we are’ and not miss it? One point that comes up in relation to this question (the first point, perhaps) is that we don’t miss it at all and that this is something which is empirically verifiable with the greatest of ease. All we need to do is take a look around us, or think about all the people we know, and ask ourselves whether they seem to be aware of ‘missing something very important’. Quite the opposite is usually true of course – we go around thinking that ‘we’re all here’, we go around acting as if our assuming basis is ‘the only true and correct one’. We take this very for granted, and our unconsciousness with regard to this assumption is what gives us our (apparent) ‘confidence’ in everyday life!

 

We could say that this is a statement of the basic human predicament: there is something very peculiar going on, but we can’t for the life of us spot it! We are not here at all, and yet we are absolutely convinced that we are. Because there are so very many people all feeling that they are fully and properly themselves (rather than being merely ‘tokenistically themselves’) this creates a type of ‘illusion field’ that is very hard to break out of, or see out of. We can’t believe that there is something crucially important missing from our lives because everyone else is acting as if everything is perfectly OK and ‘as it should be’; we can’t believe that we are suffering from an absence of our genuine being (which is a kind of ‘negative elephant in the living room’) because no one ever talks about it.

 

This ‘illusion field’ makes it extremely unlikely that anyone is ever going to trust themselves if they do start to get the uncomfortable feeling that there is more to them, or more to life, than everyone says there is (or that ‘there is more to being a human being than society tells us that there is.’) This awareness – we might guess – probably happens to people often enough and there are two ways things can go when it does – either we will go around telling everyone about it (in which case we will quite possibly get diagnosed as being classically psychotic and delusional) or we will have the presence of mind not to inform the world and his uncle about what we have just discovered and ‘keep the news to ourselves.’ We will in this case be able to get on our lives without either being diagnosed as having a mental illness, or in any other way being judged as peculiar or abnormal. The biggest possibility of all however is that we will simply just go along with the very limited expectation of what it means to be a human being that we have been provided with. Any awareness that is contrary to this expectation will simply be disregarded as not making any sense, as not being commensurate with the all-important ‘consensus viewpoint’.

 

So – just to recapitulate – we lose ourselves completely and we have no way of recognising that there is anything missing. This is the basic statement of the human predicament. We have fallen into ‘a dark pool of forgetting’, and as far as we’re concerned there is nothing to have forgotten. There is nothing to have forgotten and so we get on with your business of doing whatever it is that we imagine we have to get on with. We get on with the type of life that we would be obliged to get on with if there were no more to us than just what the collective mind defines us as being, or what our own ‘operating system’ (i.e. the OS of the rational/conceptual mind) tells us we are. The awareness of ‘being present as we truly are’ (for want of any better way of putting it) is gone, and instead we have a sense of ourselves that – very oddly – comes from outside of ourselves via some kind of an ‘external all-determining authority’, whether that external authority be ‘the thinking mind’, or ‘the collective/generic mind which we are all a part of’.

 

We could call the ‘amnesiac’ version of ourselves (the version that’s forgotten who it really is) ‘the mundane self, ‘the everyday self’, and we could ask the question again: what ways does the everyday self have of practically encountering or coming across ‘the lack which is itself’? One (perhaps surprising) way to try to answer this question would be to say that the everyday self encounters the ‘limitation-of-being which it suffers from without knowing that it is suffering from anything’ when it experiences irritation, frustration or annoyance. There is a whole range of situations which routinely cause us to ‘lose our sense of humour’ in this banal and ridiculous way. We’re looking for things to be a certain way and things just aren’t that way, and – what’s more – we don’t have any tolerance for things being any other way than the way we want them to be. Who doesn’t know what this feels like? How many times a day does this happen?

 

What we’re talking about here may seem to be very commonplace and therefore not very illuminating for the purposes of furthering any argument that we might be making, but the ‘obviousness’ of the example that we are using blinds us to what its true significance. The point we’re making can be expressed very clearly and concisely – who we really are isn’t petty-minded, judgemental and intolerant like this! We’re operating ‘below ourselves’, in other words; who we really are isn’t in the least bit upset by things (or other people) ‘not being the way we absurdly think they should be’. This is like a litmus test therefore – if we find ourselves to be irritable, petty minded and judgemental about all sorts of nonsense then that shows us beyond any shadow of a doubt that we are ‘not ourselves’; it shows that we have mistakenly identified ourselves with some paltry illusion of ‘who we really are’.

 

P.D. Ouspensky says somewhere that the false self is an engine for producing negative emotions – it generates negativity of one sort or another on an ongoing basis, just as a badly tuned car engine produces black choking smoke. The reason for this (we might add) is that the ‘false self’ has absolutely no strength or flexibility to it. How can a false construct (or paltry semblance) of ourselves have any genuine strength or flexibility, after all? All it can do when it’s under pressure is to produce a terrible grating noise; all it can do when under stress is to emit toxic negativity, and thereby most regrettably pollute the environment around it. What’s more (needless to say!) the false self is almost always going to be under pressure of one sort or another, this being the nature of the world we live in. Things never work out as we would like them to. There will of course be times when everything is ‘going to plan’ and then the false self will be content, and not be bitching or complaining or sulking or creating bad feeling one way or another, but experience shows that these ‘periods of placidity’ are never going to last very long…

 

Carl Jung says something similar when he states that the big danger (or perhaps even the biggest danger) we face in life is when the mask (or persona) that we wear in order to fit the assumptions and expectations of society grows onto us and becomes part of us – a part that we can no longer remove. We no longer even want to remove the mask because we are falling under its hypnotic power and we think that it is who we are. We have become ‘possessed by the persona‘, and it lives our life for us; it lives life on our behalf, so to speak. Now it goes without saying that this mask, this persona, doesn’t have any genuine human qualities. It can mimic them, it can ‘ape’ then, but it can’t actually manifest them. The ‘mask-which-we-take-to-be-ourselves’ cannot be sincere about anything either – how can it ever be ‘sincere’ when it is not a real thing, when it’s not really us? A mask is by definition insincere. In addition to its lack of genuine human qualities’ (which we can hardly blame it for since these are not in its nature) the mask also has the propensity to generate what is generally referred to as ‘negative emotional states’, which all come down to the ‘passing on’ or ‘reallocation’ of mental pain. The mask has to pass on (or displace) mental pain since it has zero capacity within itself to bear that pain; it lacks this capacity because it isn’t a ‘real thing’, because it’s only a gimmick, a show that we putting on.

 

What we have here is therefore a very straightforward way of detecting the absence of our true, ‘uncontrived’ nature – when we react to difficult situations by ‘going into a sulk’ or ‘getting nasty’ or ‘cutting up rough’, etc, then we know that we aren’t living life ‘as we essentially are’ but rather we’re living life ‘as the persona’, ‘as the mask’, ‘as the artificial construct’. Furthermore, when we find ourselves acting violently or aggressively or in a controlling fashion, we can say the same thing – ‘something inside us’ is living a life for us, on our behalf. The mechanical/artificial version of us can only do two things after all – it can either control successfully and be euphoric, or it can be unsuccessful in its controlling and ‘cut up rough’ (i.e. ‘become dysphoric’). Ultimately, both euphoria and dysphoria are ‘toxic states’ since both derive from ‘the false version of ourselves’. Nothing good comes about as a result of putting the false self in charge of everything – everything is bound to go to wrack and ruin. If the false self is in a good mood this is not a good thing!

 

This is, then, the ‘litmus test’ any of us can apply to see whether we have ‘lost ourselves without knowing that we have’. When everything is going smoothly and ‘all is to our liking’ then we will be apparently sweet and good-natured, but when things are no longer going our way then we will immediately ‘show our true colours’, so to speak, and become sour instead of sweet, unpleasant instead of pleasant; we will start passing on pain to other people in order to make them feel bad instead of us, in other words. Either this, or we will ‘internally redirect’ the pain and blame/punish ourselves instead, which is the other ‘mechanical option’ that we have. Either way, we’re not ‘peacefully allowing to pain to be there’ but rather we’re recriminating about it – either we are targeting ourselves or others in a thoroughly non-compassionate (if not wilfully malicious) way.

 

This is of course the basic stuff of everyday life. It’s all part of the terrain, it’s all part and parcel of being a human being. Through being self-aware and taking ‘responsibility for ourselves’ (as we say) we journey in the direction of becoming more truly human, and ‘less of a machine in human guise’. If we don’t cultivate self-awareness, and we don’t take any responsibility for our ‘manifestations of toxicity’ then we journey in the opposite direction. This dual possibility’ is – we might say – what life is all about: either we become less mechanical, or more mechanical in our nature. It’s got to go either one way or the other! If we work consciously with our ‘toxic manifestations’ then they are of great help to us because they point to the absence of our true nature and if on the other hand we make excuses for them (or don’t pay any heed to them at all) then these manifestations send us down ‘the bad road’ – the road that ends up in a situation of very great suffering. Everything depends upon whether we ‘ignore the warning signs’, or ‘don’t ignore them’; the direction we are travelling depends on whether we live consciously or unconsciously, in other words.

 

What we have so far said represents a very straightforward approach to the psychology of everyday life therefore, the only thing being that it’s a negative approach rather than a positive one – it’s negative because rather than attempting to describe or say something about who we are (our ‘true nature’) it’s a description of all the things that come to pass when we are not who we are (or when we forget who we are). Instead of proceeding naïvely, as we do in ‘positive psychology’, and attempting to say something meaningful about our true nature (which we absolutely have no clue about anyway) negative psychology operates purely by looking at what we might call the symptoms of our absence, or the symptoms of our self-forgetting, (which is of course the usual situation). More than ‘the usual situation’, it’s the only situation we know about. We don’t live in a world populated by conscious human beings, after all!

 

Positive psychology is bound to be dismally unfruitful given that it’s based on the description of an idea of our self which has nothing to do with our true nature, but which is merely the mechanical construct that we have mistakenly identified with. It is accurate in one sense however; it’s accurate because the false mechanical semblance of ourselves is the basis upon which we actually operate. It is ‘useless knowledge’ all the same because no matter how well we describe ‘the false mechanical self’ it’s not really going do us any good. It’s a tremendously ‘arid’ knowledge for one thing, and for another thing the better we get at optimising ‘the performance of the false self’ the worst were actually making our situation! Without wishing to put too fine a point on it, we are bound to say that investing all our efforts in furthering positive psychology is something of a grotesque mistake therefore. All we really need to know about the mask is that it is a mask – we’re never going to make it into anything else, no matter how assiduously we work at it…