How not to be a slave

Bound

This is the fourth, and final article, on how to become the person you always were. Or, to use another terminology, to exercise your Personal Genius.

The first article in the series was Why it’s ok to be a bit weird, the second was How to be strange and the third was How to be unique.

This one is about how to get free of personal slavery. For, so long as you are a slave to opinions, to convention, to other people, to your ego, or to routine, then you cannot really be you.

For some free spirits slavery to convention is the worst. Which means doing what your parents and teachers always told you to do; or following along the mores of what the ‘right’ people do – the people you went to school with, or the people in your church, your company, your club, your neighbourhood and so forth. So that you end up speaking with the same accent, dressing the same way, behaving the same way, and, what is most despicable – judging, excluding or persecuting people who don’t follow that same ‘right’ way of life.

For other fans of enlightenment slavery to opinion is the worst. That means thinking the same way as the majority. Sharing the same newspapers, the same TV programs, the same politics, the same religion and the same prejudices. And although I don’t read newspapers, rarely watch TV, don’t vote and don’t subscribe to any single religion, I certainly agree that Headmind slavery can be a problem. In this respect I remind my readers that dumb thinking is one sure path to unhappiness and illness, as well as slavery.

Sceptics throughout history have argued that slavery to gurus is pretty bad too. But since I have also written about that subject in a prior blog article I won’t go over that ground again here. Likewise I have also written elsewhere about slavery to personal ‘bananas’, the ego, and personality.

Now I agree that if you really want to be someone worth paying attention to then you are going to have to ruthlessly discard conventions, ideas and obsessions you have always taken for granted. You are also going to have to get out of your comfort zone.  Although that is hard work (the work of a life-time, in fact) the rewards – in terms of personal fulfilment – are unspeakable.

But, for me, the worst form of slavery is the one most of us take for granted. And that is slavery to routine: doing the same things, in the same way, at the same time, in the same place, with the same people, every day. Right down to the way you dress yourself, eat your food, drive your car, do the shopping, surf the internet, walk the dog, take a nap, smoke cigarettes, have a drink and so on and on and on. So that life becomes a kind of mechanical, living death. So that you go to sleep and stay there. So that life just passes you by without you ever really exercising Awareness.

The reason this is the worst kind of slavery is that, in it, Bodymind dies slowly. And when that happens the brain loses neuroplasticity. Which means that the cells in the brain (as well as those 2 trillion cells in the body that communicate to it) either die off or become rigid. Which, in turn, means that you become a zombie incapable of changing, evolving, or learning anything new.

For me, slavery to habit is the basis for all the other kinds of slavery mentioned above. Simply because it keeps you asleep. Avoiding premature death is hard work but it is simple too. All you have to do is break one habit every day.

 

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Oscar Wilde.

 

 

Banishing pain with awareness

Book This will be the first (and probably) the only time I review a book on this blog.

That book is: Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks.

Not only is this book written with great power and emotion (I came close to tears at some points; it also echoes most of the work we are doing in Reverse Therapy.

Tim Parks is an award-winning English novelist who lives in Verona. But this book is not a novel. It is a personal story with the subtitle: ‘A sceptic’s search for health and healing’.

Tim Parks suffered excruciating pain in the pelvis, as well as a urinary disorder, for twenty years, for a problem which none of his doctors were able to diagnose accurately, or to provide a cure. Sometimes his problem was called Prostatitis; at other times Pelvic Floor Pain Syndrome. Whatever it was, Tim Parks spent years in pain and embarrassment, slowly getting more and more frustrated and demoralised by the failure of medical science to solve the problem. At one point he was offered drastic surgery for removal of the prostate gland: an option he wisely refused since, as it turned out, this would have achieved absolutely nothing except mutilation and the loss of his sex drive.

Tim Parks is funny, sad, highly intelligent, and ruthlessly honest. He describes himself as something of a Headmind-dominated person: ‘a worrisome, dissatisfied individual’: intellectual, sceptical and a control-freak, living most of his life spinning around words in his head.

After years of pain and useless advice (two doctors advised him to masturbate twice a day in order to relieve congestion in the prostate gland) Tim Parks turned to alternative medicine. He consulted an Ayurvedic practitioner in Delhi who shocked him:

‘This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradictions in your character.’

This is the clue which leads him to seek a non-medical solution. Interestingly, he describes how he resisted what he saw as a ‘psychosomatic’ explanation for his pain before coming to realise that the term ‘psychosomatic’ is nonsensical; the mind is not separate from the body and people can suffer from real, painful, symptoms (as in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, M.E, and Fibromyalgia) simply because the connection between the conscious mind and Bodymind has broken down. Or, to use my terminology, because Bodymind is at war with Headmind.

Incidentally, it is high time that we replaced the term ‘psychosomatic’ with the phrase ‘HPA Disorder’ (or something similar), as I have written before in other articles and in some of my books.

The solution Tim Parks discovered came from reading A Headache in your Pelvis, by David Wise and Rodney Anderson, in which he learnt how to use Paradoxical Relaxation. In this technique he learned not to resist the pain but to exercise Awareness on it. Simply, to let the pain be, without trying to interfere with it. Doing this twice a day he discovered that the pain simply disappeared. As Bodymind noticed that he was paying attention the pain switched off. Within months he was ‘cured’.

I have written about Awareness elsewhere on this blog and in Reverse Therapy we have long noticed the effect of exercising awareness, not resisting them, just letting them be, and simply ‘listening to them’. It is surprising, in this respect, how many of my clients have told me that just doing this can banish fatigue, pain, tension, and many other symptoms besides.

Zen things

Dukkha Whenever I study Zen I am reminded of the saying (invented by me) that ‘Life is so ridiculously simple that a child of five could get it.’

And the fundamental point of Zen, it seems to me, is that Headmind over-complicates life. With worries, self-pity, guilt, unsatisfied expectations, perfectionism, inertia, over-analysis, as well as a variety of bananas. And, in doing so, it creates unhappiness and prevents us from seeing things as they really are, in the moment.

In the sermon on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha (Gautama) refers to the human tendency to view reality as ‘Dukka’. In the original Pali (the language spoken by Gautama) ‘dukka’ means a bent, or incomplete, wheel (see the Buddhist picture on the right). In English ‘dukka; is usually translated as suffering, but it doesn’t really mean that. What it means is the way in which Headmind is constantly looking for the perfect wheel: but disastified, discontented, worried and oppressed by actual experience. That is is always looking for things to be ‘just right’: contented, happy, and at peace. But never finding peace of mind because – even when glimpsed – Headmind always looks for something more.

There is a story told by the Buddha (Gautama) meant as an analogy for the human condition. It concerns a man who is shot by an arrow who, instead of seeing his pain and doing something about it in the moment, insists on talking about the arrow – where it came from, who shot it, why it had to be him of all people, etc etc. Thinking doesn’t make you aware and it sometimes just makes you stupid. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha encourages us to release Dukka by seeing through this Headmind tendency.

Zen Buddhism is a systematic attempt to get back to the original teachings of the Buddha, using a variety of exercises and meditational forms on the path to enlightenment. One such form is to meditate on a koan. A koan is an impossible question; one that can never be answered by ordinary ways of thinking. For example:

Maitre “The master placed a vase of water on the ground and asked: ‘Who can show what this is without saying it’s name?’

(The correct answer: The Zen monk kicks over the vase with his foot and walks out).

Zen koans are designed to help people bypass Headmind. When you see that there is no answer to the absurd question ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping’ you are enlightened in that moment because you have seen through the tricks that language (and Headmind) plays on you. You have realised that stupid thoughts get you nowhere. By implication, you may also realise that Headmind perceptions are not reality. And, if you get that, you sometimes also get a glimpse of what reality looks like when you are not thinking about it.

I once, briefly, had such an experience a few years ago while I was looking at my back garden on a glorious sunny day. Maybe because I was surprised by the beauty of what I saw, my intellectual mind stopped chattering for a couple of minutes. And I caught a glimpse of just how ok the world was when left to itself: without words, without worries, and without instant judgments about the way things ‘ought’ to look like. Absent of dukka, in fact.

Because Reverse Therapy favours Bodymind over Headmind (because that is the route through which the person begins to understand the meaning of symptoms instead of resisting them) we spend quite a bit of time teaching our clients what Zen teachers call ‘zazen’ (mindfulness) – just sitting quietly, focusing attention on what goes on in the hera and now, in the body. And, on the way, letting Headmind chatter die down.

Death? No worries

Afterlife As a child Death terrified me.

When I was six years old the kind old lady next door who used to give me sweets died. I asked my father what had happened to her. Reluctantly he mumbled that she had gone and wouldn’t be coming back (Dad was never very good at the metaphysical stuff).

‘Well, where is she now?”, I asked.

‘Up there’ he said, his finger pointing to the ceiling.

Even at six-and-a-half years old I was smart enough to realise that living in the clouds wasn’t an obvious life-choice. So I persisted with the interrogation.

‘Does everyone die, Daddy?’.

‘Yes – everyone. Everyone.’ He looked embarrassed, as he always did when he couldn’t give complete explanations. For me the fact that he didn’t KNOW the answer scared me a lot – it was my first realisation that adults were as clueless about the Universe as I was.

From then, for quite a few years, I thought about it a lot. How could people just vanish? It seemed ridiculous. I would walk home from school and look at all the grave-stones in the cemetery. Here someone’s ‘dearly beloved’ had expired in 1887. Over there a ‘wonderful father’ had ‘gone to join Jesus’ in 1956, the year I was born. Another grave, surmounted by a huge, sorrowing angel, announced that the loved one was awaiting the ‘last trumpet’.

Once they had lived and breathed and walked as I was doing now. But – now – nothing. Later on, in my teens, I found my thoughts echoed by the poet, Philip Larkin:

I work all day, and get half drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain edges will grow light.

Till then I see what’s really always there:

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,

Making all thought impossible but how

And where and when I shall myself die.

Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. 

Not in remorse 
- The good not used, the love not given, time


Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb


Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:


But at the total emptiness forever,
 The sure extinction that we travel to


And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
 Not to be anywhere,


And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Yet the dread of death is entirely created by the Ego. It’s real worry is that this unique, ‘special’, person that I am will cease to be. That it is frightening to think that this world existed for eternity before I was born and will continue to exist for an eternity without me (let us leave aside the after-life for, as the Buddha once told us, we can know nothing about it. And, in any case, even Souls will be extinguished eventually, as the Hindus teach).

The solution: the way to let go of this dread of Death is to recognise that:

a) it is a hallucination created in Headmind

b) and that Present Moment Awareness dissolves it

The hallucination is easy to explain if you have been following my previous posts on how Headmind works. In this case Headmind (Larkin’s included) is making up a story-line which goes something like this:

I – this special person I am, is indispensable – I must not die – But I will die – Then there is Nothing.

At this point Headmind will typically come up with nightmarish images of this ‘Nothing’ in future time – darkness; a void; an emptiness; pictures of infinite space, etc. This image, because it does not include the self, seems to wipe everything out, to make existence meaningless. And because Headmind imagines that our Ego is the most important thing in the Universe it whispers to us: ‘Nothing more terrible, nothing more true…”

Tolstoy, in his melodramatic short story, The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, gives a good description of this kind of thinking. Essentially, Ivan Ilyich, tortures himself about his impending death by continually worrying about the mistakes he has made in the past, and that he cannot control what is about to happen to him. But – at the point of death – he learns to let go of the delusion:

“At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What *is* the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife camp up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

“Yes, I am making them wretched,” he thought. “They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.” He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter it. “Besides, why speak? I must act,” he thought. with a look at his wife he indicated his son and said: “Take him away…sorry for him…sorry for you too….” He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave his was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”

He turned his attention to it.

“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

In the story Ivan Ilyich finds comfort from one of his servants, the peasant Geryasim, a ‘simple soul’, who radiates calm, compassion, and an ability to live in the moment. Which brings us to the second solution.

Present Moment Awareness is the aim of meditation, as well as Reverse Therapy. When you are in this state of Awareness you cannot, by definition, be frightened of death – even if you have a dangerous illness. Living in the moment means you are not living in Headmind. Which, in turn, means, you are living in the only reality that exists. When we are truly alive – right now – nothing disturbs us. We are at peace. And, in such experiences we know – through Bodymind – that something very powerful works in, and for, and through, us. And that something never dies.

Only Headmind, and the Ego, dies.

‘Nothing burns in hell except self-will.’

Theologia Germanica


Hugh Laurie, Schopenhauer, and the art of life

Schopenhaue This is the follow up article to Schopenhauer: a philosophy for grumpy people? Which attracted  a good response from many readers, many of whom had never heard of him, and were intrigued by his pessimism. Like Hugh Laurie in House he attracts people with his attitude problem.

In fact both Dr Gregory House and Schopenhauer have much in common:

  • Both are loners
  • Unconventional thinkers
  • Grumpiness combined with a wish to help others
  • Black humour
  • Grim realism
  • Mockery of conventional, pompous, people and ideas
  • Atheism
  • Disillusion
  • A (well-disguised) compassion for others.
  • Both are skilled wind-up merchants

For Schopenhauer, the world was a place he never made and little admired. Unlike almost all other philosophers, he did not believe that human beings were created to be happy. The reason for that is that our Will for personal gratification is out of all proportion to what Life can actually offer us. That, he claimed, was the reason for our continually recurring states of frustration, heartache and boredom.

Now, while I believe Schopenhauer was right in some of his diagnoses, I disagree about the cause. It is not the Universal Will which is the cause of personal misery but Headmind obsessions working through the Ego. I have written about this before in my article on How your Head F*cks You Up.

While I agree with Schopenhauer that we are not created to be happy (because we are blessed/cursed with an enlarged Headmind/Pre-frontal cortex), I disagree that we cannot, in fact find it. We can find it if we persist, through Awareness, and through downsizing the Ego.

However, I will leave you with a few more conclusions from the Master:

  • Make good use of the only thing you can control: your conscious mind.
  • Strive to live in the Now
  • Set limits everywhere: on desires, wealth and power.
  • Accept limitations: that leads to peace of mind.
  • Accept misfortunes: only dwell on them if you can change something about them.
  • Seek out personal space and time for yourself; other people may try rob you of peace of mind.
  • Keep busy, always.
  • Do not expect too much from other people: like you they are only human.
  • In the long run, assume disappointment will be your lot more times than not.
  • You are not alone: others share your disappointments.
  • Your recognition of your shared humanity with others is the basis for compassion.
  • This recognition frees you from the Ego.
  • At times of great difficulty you can take consolation from the fact that every other human being has endured similar difficulties.
  • Contemplation of Nature, Art, Music, Literature and the Spectacle of life raises you above it.

Why guilt is useless

Guilt
Guilt is a delusionary state. It doesn’t serve you at all and is a creation of the imagination; of Headmind’s drive towards conformity.

Here’s how Headmind creates Guilt:

1. Headmind is stuffed full of judgments about the person you could be, should be, should not be, etc. Those judgments were not originally your own but inherited from other people. But gradually you internalised them and they became self-judgments.

2. These judgments are re-activated by parents, teachers, priests, employers, children and partners who may be exploiting you.

3. Your Headmind buys into those judgments because it seeks acceptance, conformity, and admiration (even from people who don’t deserve your respect).

4. Dwelling on occasions in which guilt comes up – and Headmind judges you – creates uncomfortable Bodymind reactions: cringing, agitation, distress. Although Bodymind creates that discomfort in order to warn you not to indulge in guilt, Headmind interprets this as a signal that you are, indeed, a ‘bad’ person, worthy of punishment.

Here’s another way to understand ‘Guilt’:

1. Earlier societies did not recognise a psychological state known as ‘guilt’. For them ‘guilt’ was simply another word for ‘debt’ (as in the German/Saxon word: ‘gultig’). It simply meant that one person had harmed another and was unable to put things right. For example, one person stole another person’s property but was too poor to pay it back – therefore he was ‘guilty’ and subject to the penalties of the community.

2. Religious influences gradually changed this original meaning of guilt into ‘personal sin’.

3.  When Psychology started up in Germany and America in the 19th century it took over religious ideas about ‘sin’ and reinterpreted them in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ actions. So doing one ‘bad’ thing made you an ‘evil’ or ‘guilty’ person – instead of someone who simply made a mistake.

4. Mistakes and ‘bad’ actions you committed in the past were based on the knowledge you possessed at the moment you committed them, no matter how daft. For example: you shop-lifted, knowing you couldn’t afford something but that you ‘had’ to have the item anyway. You let the Headmind state of greed get the better of you.

5. Therefore your past mistakes were based on inadequate knowledge (you thought it was ok to steal, or that you wouldn’t get caught, or that it wouldn’t matter if you did get caught). Your predictions turned out to be wrong, although you didn’t  realise that at the time.

6. Your present self-judgments are based on a false premise: your present self blames your past self even though your past self did not possess the experience of knowledge your present self now has.

Here is the truth:

1. You did not actually have free will back then when you committed your error of judgment. You did what you had to do at the time because you lacked Awareness.

2. Indulging in Headmind worry (i.e. analyzing over and over again about what an ‘evil’ person you were/are) may actually get in the way of your attempts to put things right.

3. If you have really done somebody wrong you could connect to the emotion of remorse and get on with making amends, rather than wasting time on guilt.

Image by Jsome1