The Natural Is Sufficient

We often hear that we should ‘love ourselves’ but this is much more problematic than it sounds. Obviously, it’s not helpful for us to hate ourselves or spend all our time criticising ourselves and so it might seem as if the thing to do is to turn this around and love ourselves instead. Instead of ‘negative self-talk,’ we argue, we should engage in the beneficial positive variety. Positive is good, we say. Positive will do the job. Positive will sort out the problem. This just doesn’t work out for us however, no matter what we might think — all we do when we try to flip things over in this apparently convenient way is involve ourselves in a mind-created polarity, and there is never any joy in this! There is never any joy to be had from involving ourselves in a polarity because all that happens then is that we go around in perfect circles — we’re flipping back and forth from one artificial attitude to another, and no good can ever come out of that.

What helps is not the artificial but the natural and the natural can never be contrived. As Wang Pi says, ‘The natural is sufficient. If one strives, he fails.’The question is therefore, is this hypothetical situation where we love ourselves and say helpful things to ourselves a natural one? Is this a natural and wholesome state of affairs, or is it just ‘how we think we should be’? Is it a real thing or is it just an idea that we have somehow gotten into our heads? The answer to this question is very clear — the situation where we love ourselves, or where have positive regard for ourselves and engage in positive self-talk, is most emphatically not a natural one. On the contrary, this is a situation that we ourselves have to deliberatively engineer, a situation that we have to strain ourselves in order to bring about, and even then we’re never going to get there, not really. It’s an unattainable goal. The best we will be able to do (the very best) is to repress one half of the love/hate polarity so that the other side of the coin stays out of sight. It will be there alright — it’ll always be there — but we might be able, with any luck, to push it out of the way for a while. Nothing more satisfactory than this is possible when it’s a polarity that we’re dealing with — what we’re talking about here is ‘the Sickness of Right and Wrong’, after all…

What we have quite lost sight of (in our frenzy of overthinking) is that the ‘natural state of being’ is one where we aren’t trying to force any particular state of affairs, where we aren’t trying — as we always are trying — to compel the world to conform to our cockeyed ideas for it. The natural is a state of ‘non-striving’ as Wang Pi says: all striving and straining belongs to the world of the artificial. All scheming and planning belongs to the world of the artificial. All methods and theories belong to this world too… The natural state of being is the uncontrived or spontaneous one and so there is nothing more to be said on the matter — ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and ‘have to’s’ have no place here — all that is mere pernicious interference. Our natural and uncontrived state is the unselfconscious state, just as a young child is unselfconscious, and this absence of self-consciousness means not liking ourselves and not disliking ourselves either — it means not thinking about ourselves at all.

Unselfconsciousness is the Eden from which we as adults have been evicted — if there ever was an essential understanding of what is meant by the Fall, this is it. Curiously, we celebrate the adult state and take the attitude that nothing of the innocent ‘child-state’ is of interest or worth to us; being an adult is where it’s at as far as we’re concerned and when we are adults then everything we do is based on calculation, everything we do is based on the inherently painful state of ‘self-consciousness’! Everything is considered, everything is calculated, nothing is left to chance… This might sound eminently prudent (from one point of view, at least) but it is anything but — when we’re caught up in this loop of monitoring ourselves, comparing the information we get as a result of our monitoring with our notions of how things should be, and then regulating or managing ourselves on this basis, then all innocence has been lost. Childhood has been slain. Everything genuine about us is lost in this case and yet -somehow — we don’t see anything wrong with this at all. On the contrary, we are constantly looking for new, improved ways of regulating our emotions, managing our anxiety, anger or pain, and so on.

All our talk of ‘self-esteem’, which is a subject mental-health workers have been wittering on about for over half a century now, is further evidence of this peculiar sickness of ours — all self-esteem — whether it be categorized as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ comes out of our self-consciousness, our self-monitoring. When we are free from this affliction then we have no self-esteem, either of the good or the bad variety. We aren’t thinking about ourselves and so we can’t have any ‘self-esteem’! Mental health — we assume — must involve seeing us seeing ourselves in a positive way; most of us would probably agree with this idea but if we do go along with this handy formula then what we’re actually saying is that being compulsively self-conscious is actually a sign of mental health, which is a truly bizarre position to take. Were it possible to be self-conscious and yet at the same time ‘always see ourselves in a positive way’ (or were it to be possible for us to be monitoring and controlling ourselves and at the same time always be able to get things to work the way we think they should do) then there might be some basis for us taking this position. But — as we’ve already pointed out — what we’re dealing with here is a mind-created polarity and all that’s going happen as a result of our unwise ‘flirtation with polarity’ is that we are going to be forever going around in circles, and this is a state of interminable frustration rather than being a manifestation of mental well-being. This is dukkha, which is the subject of the Buddha’s ‘First Noble Truth’.

Mental health, according to our cultural bias, can be defined as that state of being in which we are able to successfully regulate ourselves. We see mental health is being a state of ‘successful self-consciousness’, in other words. This is the unconscious message or implication behind the term ‘positive psychology’ — what else does ‘positive’ mean, apart from the indirect (but very seductive) implication that ‘things are going to go the way we think they ought to go’? The idea that mental health means being perfectly natural (or being spontaneous) simply doesn’t occur to us. There’s no appeal for us in this because it gives us absolutely nothing to grab hold of — it’s actually got ‘nothing to do with us’, as David Bowie says in The Man Who Sold The World, and we don’t like this. We want to have some kind of valuable and important role to be playing in the process; we want to be in charge, to be quite blunt about it. We want to be in charge, but this comes out of fear (or our lack of trust in the natural order of things, which can take perfectly good care of itself). The urge to dominate and control our own mental processes most certainly doesn’t come from any good place.

We want to be in control and make sure that we ‘love ourselves rather than despise ourselves’ (or make sure that our mental processes go the way we think they ought to go, rather than any other ‘erroneous’ way) and because of this we automatically tend to think that control and mental health belong together in the same sentence, which they absolutely don’t. These two words should never be conflated, not under any circumstances! Control (when we’re speaking about the psychological realm) always comes out of fear and nothing that comes out of fear (or ‘the compulsive avoidance of risk’) can ever be seen as healthy. Fear always shows itself in terms of conservatism, in terms of ‘holding on,’ while courage or equanimity shows itself in the uncluttered willingness to ‘let go’. What do we think is the more mentally healthy — ‘stubbornly holding on’ (i.e. controlling) or ‘letting go’? Struggling to stay in control when all the signs are that this isn’t going to be possible isn’t an indication of courage or equanimity — obviously enough! It’s an indication of something else entirely…

The state of being innocent or spontaneous or perfectly unselfconscious is a very mysterious one and — as a compulsively rational culture — we aren’t very happy about that. We aren’t very happy about that at all. We like to ‘know what’s going on’ because ‘knowing what’s going on’ is a very important part of being in charge or being in control. We can’t be ‘in control’ when everything is all mysterious, after all! Not knowing what’s going on seems like a massive disadvantage to us, and definitely not something to feel good about. It is our desire to know ‘what’s going on’ and ‘control what’s going on’ that creates the self-reflexive knot of tension that we call ‘the ego’ or ‘self’. Our mental well-being is not something to be obtained cheaply via the deeply delusional strategy of spinning the polarity wheel — we’re going to have to do better than this! We’re going to have to do a lot better than this… It’s not extra helpings of cleverness we need but wisdom, and wisdom has something to do with the understanding of what kind of a beast polarity is, and why it doesn’t pay to mess around with it. Cleverness traps us, we might say, whilst wisdom sets us free. Cleverness leads us in the direction of creating a positive reality all around us, just as a snail secretes a hard shell around itself, but what makes sense for the snail doesn’t make sense for us, psychologically speaking! We are, via this act, denying our own nature and denying reality itself. Reality is open just as our nature an open nature, so when we see create the positive (or ‘defined’) reality all around us what exactly is it that we’re doing? We have forsaken the natural for the artificial and once this has happened — once we have made this ‘mistake’ — all we can do is to keep on trying to remedy the problems that come about as a result of us unwisely interfering with the natural process with yet more ‘problem-producing interference’…

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