The Ways We Keep Ourselves From Psychological Stability


“Discovering this, [that you suffer only from yourself], the mind becomes whole: the split between I and me, man and the world, the ideal and the real, comes to an end. Paranoia, the mind beside itself, becomes metanoia, the mind with itself and so free from itself. Free from clutching at themselves the hands can handle; free from looking after themselves the eyes can see; free from trying to understand itself thought can think. In such feeling, seeing, and thinking life requires no future to complete itself nor explanation to justify itself. In this moment, it is finished.”

Recently, I had the good fortune of receiving a book that a friend thought I’d enjoy, and (unsurprisingly) I stayed up last night and read it twice. The title is The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, it’s a philosophical look into why we desire security and certainty in a life that is so clearly insecure and uncertain. I’ve taken what it taught me and summarized it into a few points on the ways we keep ourselves from our own psychological stability. Any passages taken directly are quoted, and the rest are my own supplemental thoughts and opinions. I highly recommend reading the book in its entirety, and you can find it via the link above.


1. You’re seeking happiness, not peace.

“When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.” The moment you seek perpetual, sustained joy is the moment you also identify what the opposite of it would be, and the very act of trying to avoid it brings it into your experience. Seeking peace is permitting and embracing and immersing oneself in whatever it is that comes into your experience, and it is only when you make everything acceptable and desired, that the very concept of “bad” and “painful” dissolves. (Pleasure, as I’ll get to later, is whatever you want it to be.)

2. You’re trying to constantly take a mental (or physical) snapshot and say: “this is it, this is my life, this is who I am.” You’re trying to make a moment your life, as opposed to a moment in your life. And it never quite works, because “trying to hold life is like trying to hold your breath: you kill yourself.”

The concept of “I” is neither solid nor still. It is only when we identify with who we used to be that we have a concrete idea of who we are, and so we return to that, because we desire that stability. Because we are consistently living within a mentality of what was definitively, we are creating for the sake of making things fixed, when they can never really be that way.

Your experience is intended to be a flowing, changing, evolving one. Who you are doesn’t require definition. You’re only trying to take that snapshot for other people, which means you’re seeking solidified, external validation that you are afraid to feel for yourself. Speaking of:

3. You avoid pleasure to avoid pain. “You don’t want to grow because the advantages of being conscious and aware are outweighed by the disadvantages, where extreme sensitivity makes you unadaptable.”

The more we can feel pleasure, the more we are vulnerable to pain — and, “whether in background or foreground, the pain is always with us.” So by trying to numb your entire experience, you end up in perpetual tension between wanting to experience and not experiencing what you’re already going through.

4. You’re seeking eternal and external order to make sense of life, when most of it can only be theories and ideas and myths. “We’ve made life meaningful by belief in unchanging things beyond the reach of calamity — in God, in man’s immortal soul, and in the government of the universe by eternal laws of right.”

“The common error of ordinary religious practice is to mistake the symbol for reality, to look at the finger pointing the way and then to suck it for comfort rather than follow it. Religious ideas are like words — of little use, and often misleading, unless you know the concrete realities to which they refer. The word ‘water’ is a useful means of communication amongst those who know water. The same is true of the word and the idea called ‘God.'”

The only real problem with taking stock in an externalized deity is that, for many people, it also externalizes the work and the responsibility and the hope and the love. This usually culminates in people asking “Where’s God?” “Why would He let this happen?” etc. To this, and for this, I’m going to share a passage from my favorite book, Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s Cheryl’s response to a letter she receives from a woman in a pediatric hospital, awaiting the fate of her 6-month-old daughter that is undergoing brain surgery, questioning how and where God is in all of this.

“What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others are offering you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?”

5. You’re using words and ideas to measure your life, when they only really symbolize it. Your only goals are measurements of reality.

You’re trying to make “fixity out of flux.” The way you derive meaning in your life is by settling into comforting and definitive laws and ideas and rules that you want to believe “correspond to an unchanging and eternal reality behind the shifting scene.”

Thoughts, ideas, and words are not things, they are representative of things. “They are the by-products, the flavors and atmospheres of real things — shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol of this, being a mere symbol of wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most example of confusing measurement with reality. Money is not real wealth. You cannot eat a coin, you cannot experience a coin, you can only measure it and derive pleasure from that measurement aligning with what you perceive as ‘good.'”

6. You’re trying to define things to give them meaning, when the things that matter most cannot and will never be fixed ideas, only experiences that can only be really embraced when presently immersed in them, not thinking about what they mean.

“All explanations of the universe couched in language are circular, and leave the most essential things unexplainable and undefined. The dictionary itself is circular. It defines words in terms of other words.”

7. The happiness you do seek is abstract. “It’s in superficial things such as promises, hopes, appearances, assurances” — none of which are present or current. “You live for the future when the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience, which exists only from the brain, and cannot actually know what is to happen, it’s only frame of reference is the past and what it observes and collects as truth.”

Ideas about things — especially the future — are just inferences, guesses, deductions. “They cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen or heard. To pursue this is to constantly pursue a retreating phantom and the faster you chase the faster it runs. You never stop to eat and see and smell and be what’s in front of you.”

You’ve only programmed yourself to chase the idea.

8. You use your brain as though it’s a muscle, when it’s not designed to effort and strain like that. “It can only assume its proper behavior when it’s doing what it is designed for, being effortlessly aware.”

The thing that has influenced me most since I’ve read this (which, I acknowledge hasn’t been much time, but, y’know, hang with me here) is that I’ve become so acutely aware of my present line of awareness. More-so than I ever have been before. I saw how swiftly and easily the mental capacities that I’m always trying to control fell into place when I didn’t try. I recognized the power of internal wisdom, of instinctive knowing.

It feels as though renouncing control of your mind will allow it to fall to chaos, and it is exactly the opposite.

9. You’re dealing with symptoms, not problems. You’re asking yourself: “What can I do about it?” when the desire to solve the problem is the problem. The question “What can I do about it” is only asked by those who do not understand the problem. “If a problem can be solved at all, to understand it and to know what to do about it are the same thing.”

“On the other hand, doing something about a problem which you do not understand is like trying to clear away darkness by thrusting it aside with your hands. When light is brought, it vanishes at once.”

10. You don’t realize that the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing.

“You want to be happy, to forget yourself, and yet the more you try to forget yourself, the more you remember the self you want to forget. You want to escape from pain, but the more you struggle to escape, the more you inflame the agony. You are afraid and want to be brave, but the effort to be brave is fear trying to run away from itself.”

It goes back to the idea that when we create “good” we create duality, and as we know from being beat over the head with it, unity and oneness is where peacefulness and joy is. Fighting against something only makes it bigger. Focusing on what we don’t want brings that very thing to us. We only create things we don’t want when we decide what we must have, what we do want, and because we define ourselves by what we want and by how other people see us, receiving what we “don’t want” becomes that much more detrimental.

11. You’re putting in too much effort. Effort = the state of tension in which pain thrives.

You cannot simultaneously be immersed in an experience and also be identifying it. The only time you identify “happiness” or “peacefulness” as opposed to just being in it is when you are either out of it, or afraid you’re going to lose it (which is also essentially being out of it.)

12. You believe pain is problematic. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain, not the reaction of an “I” separate from it.

The urge to get rid of it, the desire to be separate from it, are the same thing. “When you discover this, the desire to escape merges into the pain itself and it vanishes.”

13. You don’t realize that pleasure is whatever you desire. Pain can be pleasure, you just have to realize what it is you really want.

You don’t want what you think you want — you want whatever is in your life right now. And you’ll want to think to yourself: “how could I ever want such a terrible thing to be my reality?” Well, there’s some part of you that believes (subconsciously, most likely) that it’s what will serve you best, or more crucially, it’s what you deserve. Realizing that your wants are not all positive or genuinely desirable is crucial to further deepening your inner locus of control.

14. You neglect to realize that the mind must always be absorbed in something, but we can choose what that something is. It is constantly aware, but whether it’s aware of the present moment, an illusion of the past, a deduction for the future, etc. is our choice.

“The mind must always be interested or absorbed in something, just as a mirror must always be reflecting something. When it is not trying to be interested in itself — as if a mirror would reflect itself — it must be interested, or absorbed, in other people and things. There is no problem of how to love. We love. We are love. And the only problem is the direction of love, whether it is to go straight out like sunlight, or to try to turn back on itself like a candle under a bushel.”

image – Carmen Jost