The best way to get a handle on the idea of ‘psychological work’ is to understand what it is not, and what it is not is our normal everyday mode of mental functioning! This ‘everyday mental modality’ – which is generally the only mode we have – can be neatly explained by saying that it is all about obtaining relief. This is not a particularly flattering way to understand ourselves but it is nevertheless a very accurate one. Despite any illusions we might have to the contrary, it doesn’t take very much at all to understand ‘what makes us tick’. Essentially, the fundamental underlying motivation for our purposeful (as opposed to spontaneous) behaviour is the need to find relief from difficulty or discomfort. We always look for the easiest route and if we are in discomfort all we can think about is how to escape from it. It could be said that discomfort ‘reveals’ our underlying motivation because it is so very obvious at such times that nothing else matters to us – curiosity in anything else other than the burning question of ‘how to escape’ is at zero level.
It is this very simple motivation that lies behind all of our purposeful or goal-orientated behaviour, and behind all our rational thinking. If I am busy, then what lies behind my ‘busy-ness’ is the need to find relief and if I am busy thinking then what lies this busy-ness is also the need to find relief. In the case of thinking I am trying to find relief by analysing, or problem-solving, or asking “why me?”, or complaining, etc. Whatever the type of thinking, if it is directed (as opposed to creative or spontaneous) then it is at root nothing more than the attempt to obtain relief from something that is bugging me. Sometimes – as Krishnamurti says – what lies behind my incessant thinking is the motivation of looking for pleasure and so what I am doing is re-iterating to myself a particular way of describing the world that gives me comfort, or a sense of validation, something that makes me feel like a winner rather than a loser but this too is simply ‘looking for relief’. When I am thinking in order to obtain pleasure all I am doing is looking for relief from the need to obtain pleasure, or a sense of self-justification etc. If I don’t obtain pleasure or self-justification then I will feel bad and so I am still ‘fleeing pain’.
THE MENTAL TRAP
The first and most basic psychological principle is that we are all helpless slaves to the need to avoid pain (or fear, which comes to the same thing). In a nutshell, our default situation is that we are all ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’. The second most basic psychological principle is that we are helpless slaves of the need to avoid knowing about the first psychological principle! Naturally enough, we don’t like to know that we are relief-seeking mechanisms and it is this resistance to seeing the less-than-glamorous truth that is the single greatest obstacle to genuine self-understanding. We want to think that we are more complex, more diverse, more fascinating than simple pain-avoidance machines, mechanisms which are driven by nothing more interesting or heroic than the need ‘not to challenge ourselves any more than we can possibly avoid’.
These two principles are actually the same thing when it comes down to it – the need to avoid pain is the same thing as the need to avoid the pain of seeing that we are driven by the need to avoid pain. What this means is that a mental trap is created, a modality of insincere activity that I cannot see to be insincere (or, alternatively ‘an area of superficial interaction which I cannot see to be superficial’). The reason this is a trap is because I am on the one hand ‘restricted to living on a superficial level’ and on the other hand ‘totally unable to see that I am restricted in this way’. The result of this is that I think that the domain of interaction which I am restricted to is ‘all that there is’. If someone were to come along and try to explain to me that my thinking and behaviour was superficial-but-apparently-not-superficial I wouldn’t believe what they were saying – I would be frankly incredulous – and the reason for my incredulity is the fact that I just don’t have any way of seeing the truth of it. My inability to see the plain fact of my own superficiality is what creates the trap and my absolute, implacable dismissal of the suggestion that I am in such a trap is a direct measure of just how hugely effective that trap is.
Within the field of sociology it has been said that ideology is the most effective form of imprisonment there is because there is no need for any prisons or prison guards or police or apparatus of any kind – we do all the work ourselves, with no outside help! Ideology means what I believe, what I hold to be true or right, and it is my unreflective acceptance of these structures and values (which come from outside of me) that constitute the bleak brick walls of my cell and the unyielding iron bars on the window. In a much more general sense we are all the helpless prisoners of the sense of utter conviction (or ‘certainty’) that comes about as a result of not realizing that our basis for understanding whatever it is we think we understand is so very limited. In a nutshell – the reason I feel so sure of myself, and so sure that the world is the way that I think it is, is because I am blissfully ignorant of the fact that I am living life on an entirely superficial level.
This fundamental ‘need’ is sometimes called attachment and attachment covers both attraction (positive desire) and aversion (negative desire). In essence both attraction and aversion come down to ‘the need to seek relief from discomfort’ – when I am experiencing attraction it is difficult to be in the place where I haven’t yet obtained what I want to obtain and therefore the way that I look for relief from this demand is to try as hard as I can to succeed at obtaining whatever it is that I am experiencing attraction towards. I am automatically running away from the challenge of ‘doing the hard thing’. When I experience aversion the same thing is true – some difficulty or discomfort is impinging upon me and the only way I can find relief is to somehow escape that difficulty.
Just to reiterate the point, what all this means is that we are – for 99% of the time – no more than mere ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’. We don’t do anything for any higher purpose than self-interest although in order to protect our image of ourselves we dignify this self-serving activity by validating it in accordance with a system of belief that exists precisely for the purpose of justifying that activity. The first place to start with ‘psychological work’ is therefore for me to see what my genuine motivation is in any given situation. Since my genuine motivation in any given situation is almost invariably to find relief from discomfort it is inevitable that this motivation is going to apply equally across the board, and so it is inevitable that I am also going to try to find relief from the discomfort of seeing that I am always just trying to find relief from discomfort. Since the reason for me doing whatever I am doing is because doing it enables me to ‘run away from doing the hard thing’, and since seeing that my motivation is so appallingly banal and self-centred is a very hard thing, it comes as no surprise at all to learn that I am always going to run away from ‘the hard thing’ of seeing that I am systematically avoiding every genuine challenge in life.
OBEYING THE AVERSION
Basically, and not to put too fine a point on it, when I see how completely lacking in any sort of justification whatsoever my actual motivation is I experience intense aversion to encountering this truth and because this ‘aversion’ constitutes a serious difficulty, a serious challenge to the status quo, what I automatically do is to ‘obey’ the aversion by running away from whatever awareness it is that has caused it to arise. In other words, my allegiance is not to the truth, but to my own comfort. Wherever there is a conflict of interest (and there always is a conflict of interests between comfort and the truth!) then it is always the former that is going to win out. In simple terms, then, psychological work simply means seeing oneself honestly.
As a rule, we would rather do anything else than see ourselves with complete honesty and this is the reason why we end up doing most of whatever it is that we do. Sometimes, our behaviour is out-and-out escape behaviour and this is relatively easy to see. If I am gambling or drinking or taking heroin or immersing myself in soap-operas, or involving myself in any sort of superficial nonsense for the sake of distraction or diversion, then this is very obviously ‘escape behaviour’. On the other hand, I might be setting myself what looks like substantial challenges – I might be active within some field of human endeavour (politics, industry, the arts, conservation, social care, religion, anything at all really) – but with the unspoken agenda that I am fundamentally unwilling to drop or question some key agenda, some key belief or assumption. If I am, for example, politically or religiously motivated then I might take on all sorts of incredible challenges; I might even sacrifice my own life, but because the motivation that drives me to take on these challenges is the same thing as ‘the-motivation-not-to-question-or-challenge-my-key-agenda’ then this behaviour too is escape behaviour. I am escaping from the terrible aversion that I have to discovering that my key agenda, my key assumption or belief, is false or phony.
Psychological work is therefore not what we are motivated to do, but what we are motivated to see. If I am motivated to do something, then the chances are that my motivation is attachment (i.e. greed or fear) but if I am motivated to sit with some kind of a painful truth, then there is no way at all that this motivation can be attachment. It is very easy for me to kid myself that what I am doing constitutes psychological work because no matter how difficult whatever it is that I am doing might be I might still be managing to avoid an even more difficult task by doing it, in which case what I am doing is just ‘looking for relief’, same as everything else. Often, for this very reason, our greatest heroes turn out to be the worst scoundrels at the same time!
The question that keeps coming up, in the most repetitive way possible, when we are feeling bad is “How can I stop feeling so bad?” or, to put this another way, “How can I help myself?” This seems on the one hand to be a perfectly valid and worthwhile question (and one that we will all understand), but on the other hand since ‘not helping myself’ (in relation to ‘feeling bad’) is the harder thing to do, the more difficult thing to do,the more courageous thing to do, all the effort, persistence and ingenuity that we put into fixing or correcting our situation and ‘making everything OK again’ is the avoidance of psychological work rather than being genuine work in its own right. It won’t get us anywhere – it might seem to be getting us somewhere but this is just a temporary state of affairs. It’s an attractive illusion, no more. In reality, any effort we put into escaping inner pain through some sort of manoeuvring, some sort of strategizing, some sort of ‘cleverness’, is directed towards obtaining a comforting illusory state – it couldn’t be otherwise since nothing genuinely worthwhile could ever come about as a result of ‘avoiding psychological work’.
THE ‘WAY OF ERROR’
Life gets very complicated when we put our money on escaping painful inner states through manoeuvring, through strategizing, through cleverness. We have to wrack our brains over what the fight course of action might be, what the right answer might be. What will work and what won’t work? Life then turns into a puzzle, a riddle, a problem and we have to be thinking away on a full-time basis to try to solve it. When life is a problem then I am caught up in thought. Each apparent solution will give rise to new and unexpected problems which in turn have to be solved, have to be corrected for, and then these solutions will their in turn engender new and unexpected complications. Actually, each ‘new’ problem is simply the old problem in a new guise and so the basic message that I am ignoring here is that the original problem is simply insoluble! What I am doing with my ongoing apparently heroic attempt to ‘solve’ the problem is therefore simply a delaying tactic that I am refusing to see as such. ‘Trying to fix the problem’ is simply denial, in other words.
Psychological work is hard because I am not turning my back on the problem. There is no immediate sense of relief when I allow myself to think that I have finally escaped whatever doom it was that was so persistently dogging me. This intoxication is denied me. But on the other hand there is no complication! There is no complication at all – there is no need for me to be wracking my brains day in and day out trying to figure out what the right thing to do is. There are no questions that need to be asked. There is no need for me to be analysing the situation! Why would I analyse if I wasn’t trying to run away? Why would I analyse if my situation isn’t a problem, isn’t something that I need to change? When I am not treating my situation (or life) as ‘a problem to be solved’ then everything becomes marvellously simple. My situation always was this simple – I just couldn’t see it! The way I was looking at life was making it complicated because the one thing I wasn’t allowed to do was to allow things to be the way that they already are.
My painful inner state isn’t a problem because it can’t be fixed. That’s the way I am and the way that I want to be (or the fact that I don’t want to be this way) has nothing to do with it. How can I not be the way that I am? What other choice do I have apart from simply allowing myself to have the freedom to actually notice the way that I am? I do have another choice it is true – I have the choice of pretending to myself that I can in fact run away from my own inner state and then – having made this choice – I can run with it and see where it gets me. This is what Jung refers to as ‘the way of error’- the belief that I can save myself via my own efforts, via my own cleverness. As a culture, it is apparent that we are very much given over to the via erratum, the way of error! Any other way simply doesn’t make sense to us. What else could we possibly do? The simplicity of allowing ourselves to be saved – if we are to be saved – ‘from without‘ (i.e. not by our own agency) simply doesn’t occur to us.
When I opt for the ‘way of error’ there are two possibilities – one is that I will think that I am getting somewhere and as a result will feel elated, and the other is that I will become disillusioned and think that I am not getting anywhere, and then I will feel despairing. These are the only two possibilities open to me and neither of them have anything to do with the actual truth of my situation. Life then becomes a matter of me trying to get as much of the elation as I can, and as little of the despair as I can, which is a pointless task since both the elation and the despair are – at root – the same thing. Both equal ‘the way of error’ – both equal either my success or my failure at deceiving myself! I buy into the idea that I can change the way that I am (by this means or that means) and so either I’m feeling good because I am able to believe this idea, or I am feeling bad because my belief is no longer able to sustain me, because it is letting me down. My belief (which is the same thing as my ‘system of denial’) can only ever do two things – either it can work or it can ‘not work’ and – ultimately – the extent that it works for me is also the extent that it will at some point fail to work…
TAKING IT STRAIGHT
Psychological work is therefore when we are not looking for relief from the pain (or ‘difficulty’) that is inherent in our situation. This is the same as saying that psychological work is when we are not deceiving ourselves (or not attempting to deceive ourselves) since the only way to escape the inherent difficulty in life is through self-deception. Self-deception is a road that (despite all its complicated twists and turns) leads nowhere – it leads right back to where we started off from. The road of self-deception (which is another way of talking about the via erratum) doesn’t lead anywhere because there’s nowhere else to go – there is only where we are. To see this is to see life’s inherent simplicity – all we have to do is be where we are. As Chogyam Trungpa says,
Life is a straight drink – straight pleasure, straight pain, straightforward, one hundred percent.
Once we start mixing the drink – with how we’d like things to be or how we wouldn’t like them to be – then we lose this simplicity. Once we start thinking that we can (or ought to be able to) control how we are then we lose the flavour of life. Once we bring thought into the picture then we’re no longer living. We’re doing something else that isn’t living – we’re playing games with the truth…