Fear of getting it wrong

I’m continuing to clarify my understanding of the process.

So to start with, let’s assume you’re unhappy with aspects of your life. Initially you think you are unhappy (feeling) because of these unwanted aspects of your experience (reality). This itself is a thought.

Then you encounter some positive-thinking material, which claims that in fact you’re misunderstanding cause and effect. The material claims that it is the direction of your focus that is causing you to have particular thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

“Direction of your focus” is admittedly vague, because it’s describing something that is prior to thought, feeling, and experience, and is (I suspect) something that does not of itself have recognisable qualities or attributes apart from its effects.

It’s a little like consciousness. You know you are conscious because of the objects and experiences that you are conscious of. The eye cannot see itself, the knife cannot cut itself.

The material I’m using (Esther Hicks/’Abraham’) suggests that we can and should assess our point of focus on the basis of the ensuing feelings. In other words, if our aim is to feel better, then we should focus on thoughts (or the energy prior to thought) that causes us to feel better.

I’ve outlined elsewhere why I think this is a reasonable thing to do, even to the extent of downplaying the “realism” of our thoughts in favour of how good we feel.

The problem is that we tend not to focus in a way that feels good. Even when we read this material and agree with it, we still find ourselves feeling bad, focusing on things that make us feel bad, and then all too often feeling worse because we’ve “failed”.

The emotional quality of thoughts

Our thoughts aren’t merely descriptive, they are also emotionally salient.

Two people might think “life is a struggle”, but one feels bad about the thought while the other feels excited and motivated.

Likewise, I can think “my feelings are my own fault/responsibility” and feel demoralised by it, or feel empowered by it.

So although “false” beliefs can have negative effects, so can “true” ones. Cynical and depressed people can easily wedge themselves between seemingly unassailable truths about the world, and the path out of that cul-de-sac might look like self-deception or delusion.

Sometimes these issues arise in philosophy…like if a coach tells an athlete “you can do it!” when he thinks they can’t do it, but suspects that the encouragement will motivate the athlete to perform better…this kind of scenario isn’t really captured in a simple binary of true/false.

A question of focus

Going back to the process in question:

The suggestion is that we’re mistaken about cause and effect. The suggestion is that our point of focus determines the thoughts we have, their emotional quality (our feelings) and our subsequent reality.

Personally, I’ve always approached religious/spiritual systems through the lens of “what am I doing wrong?” Yet ironically the implication is that this negative focus keeps me stuck exactly where I have been stuck, on the impression that I must be doing something wrong, with the corresponding effects of this negative focus.

Typically the teachers of this material advise that it’s not necessary to fully understand how these things work, but in my case I’m inspired by the thought of understanding the mechanisms at play.

That said, the same principles apply to my attempts to understand it: focus on the negative, on how little I understand and the sense of struggle….or focus on how much I’ve already understood, how enjoyable it is to work it out and put it into practice, and how exciting it is to still have puzzles to solve.

You can’t get it wrong

Which brings me to the principle or observation that “you can’t get it wrong”, which is especially pertinent to me given my focus on “the problem” and “what am I doing wrong?”

You can’t get it wrong, because cause and effect is driven by your focus. You get to choose what you focus on, so if you are experiencing struggle and strife, that is entirely the product of your focus. You’re getting exactly what you’re focusing on.

That doesn’t sound very comforting to me, and likely not to you either. But there’s a little more to it.

Struggle and strife and other forms of negative experience build within you a more powerful desire for the opposite. So even if you continue to focus negatively, you aren’t “failing” or “losing”, you’re experiencing a stark contrast that adds to a proportionately powerful desire for something much better.

In a metaphysical context where true harm is impossible, there’s not anything to be afraid of ultimately.

There’s not a single spiritual system worth its salt that invokes fear as an ultimate motivator or death or evil as a metaphysically powerful entity. Existence itself is divine, so what are we afraid of?

Of course “getting it wrong” might be a particular sore point for me and not for you. Different experiences produce different desires, but there will be an analog in there somewhere. Maybe it’s “losing control” or “failing” or “being useless”.

Redefining the problem

If we go back to the start and refrain “let’s assume you’re unhappy with aspects of your life”, we’re now in a slightly better position to see that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nothing wrong with being unhappy?

That sounds paradoxical, and maybe it is. Maybe the paradox will resolve itself such that you’re no longer unhappy because you’re now realising that everything is perfect and there’s no failure here.

Or maybe you’ll “forget” the paradox and go back to being unhappy in your focus for a while longer.

You might even decide “yes! I have to resolve the paradox!” and throw yourself into a state of unsatisfying struggle.

Ultimately, the direction is positive. Whether you’re going negative and building up your desire for something more, or you’ve had enough already and are changing direction, the ultimate end is a positive one.

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When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy vs spiritual event-horizon

Matthew asked about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in relation to my recent posts on acceptance.

I heard about ACT roughly two years ago, as an emerging alternative to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Here an article about ACT helpfully describes the differences between CBT, psychotherapy, and ACT:

Imagine the situation for the client who says, “I feel so anxious about going out on a date. I’m so afraid that I won’t have anything to say, or that I’ll say something really dumb.” Through the use of CBT techniques we, as counsellors, could help the client dispute the negative beliefs that she is a poor conversationalist or a boring date, replacing her anxious thoughts with positive, affirming ones, such as that she is interesting, good at conversation, or a worthy social companion.

Through longer, psychotherapeutic processes, we could help her to discover the experiences in her past (probably early childhood) which created the sense of her as socially inept. Psychotherapy takes a long time, however, and even when the effect of past history on present experience becomes known, there is still the “war of words” as the various voices within her – the critical ones and the affirming ones – clamour for attention.

The ACT principle of expansion/acceptance works differently. It would ask the client to imagine that she is about to go out on a date. She would then be instructed to scan her body, observing where she felt the anxiety most intensely. Let’s say that she reports that she experiences a huge lump in her throat. She might be then asked to observe the sensation of the lump as if she were a scientist who had never seen anything like it before: to notice the shape, weight, vibration, temperature, pulsation, and other aspects of it. She would be invited to breathe into the lump, making room for it, allowing it to be there (even though we would be highly empathetic in understanding that she did not like it or want it there!).

There’s more to ACT than just the acceptance component, but from descriptions such as those above I suspect it is aiming at the same kind of practice I’ve described as acceptance.

I haven’t undergone ACT, so I’m not in a position to recommend it, or criticise it. But I wonder how it manages the paradox of acceptance and change. On a therapeutic level, ACT must promise certain beneficial outcomes for its patients. In my experience, such promises are the biggest obstacle to practicing acceptance.

I tried acceptance and mindfulness techniques in the past, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see that those efforts were fixated on change rather than acceptance. The net result was that despite repeated efforts to ‘accept’ reality, I was still motivated by the desire for change, for a different reality. For example, the article above states:

By opening up and allowing them [unpleasant thoughts and feelings] to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention, we find that they bother us much less. They also move on more quickly, instead of hanging around and bothering us

This is precisely the kind of promise I would have clung to in the past, and attempts to ‘accept’ in such a way would be rendered fruitless by the underlying desire for change.

Perhaps this is a personal quirk, or I may be an extreme case. Or maybe an astute ACT therapist would recognise the contradiction in my efforts.

I can only speak for my own experience, and in that case the therapeutic aspect of acceptance seems accidental. The more significant motive for accepting my reality is simply that there is nothing else I can do about it.

Going a little deeper, I am my reality and my reality is me. Somehow, my reality has begun to shift in a way that is best described as acceptance. And the more I accept my reality, the more evident it becomes that nothing has really changed except my reaction to it.

Take the simplest example: people often tell me that I think too much, and in the beginning I struggled to think less. Later I struggled to understand the causes of my overthinking. Later still I tried to justify my overthinking in some terms that would be meaningful to normal people (‘underthinkers’?).

Now, as this acceptance thing slowly takes root in my mind, I’m gradually realising I can simply say “yes, I overthink everything.” I can accept it, without that acceptance implying any obligation to change, any further shame or humiliation, any loss of self.

Of course, if I’d sought that outcome in the beginning I’d have turned it into a struggle.