The imagined self obsessively identifies with our hypothetical projections
In part 1 of this article, we learnt that when we experience unwarranted or disproportionate levels of stress and anxiety, we’re preoccupied with a problem comprising two distinct elements. First of all, there are the projections we make in our minds – judgemental views we fabricate in a largely futile bid to understand and protect ourselves in a hypothetical future. Then there is the imaginary subject or ‘self’ – call it ‘me’ if you like – which is thought to be the constant and which projects itself into the future, imagining its absorption into its own hypothesised scenario.
Future and past are never as we imagine them; we can never inhabit either in any case
Almost all of this projection is superfluous, as it’s based on partial and partially erroneous information. There’s a tendency to exaggerate the downside, to set up imagined scenarios in which we have to deal with matters that either we’d rather not, or that we feel incapable of handling. Not only are these projections improbable due to their negative biasing, but there never was any constant ‘self of me’ such as could inhabit or absorb into them. The ‘self’, which we take to be synonymous with ‘me’, is nothing other than a narrative creation – a belief, but not our actuality.
Anxiety undermines reason; biasing the mind with needless worries
It’s quite natural and helpful to anticipate experience of course. So our projections assist us, but only up to a point. With stress and anxiety, we overstep the mark. Our projections are useful only in so much as they might guide our actions wisely. But when we load these projections with anxiety we aim to prevent things ‘going wrong’, imagining many potential pitfalls and dangers – a negative biasing that’s unrealistic and highly speculative. The truth is, we simply don’t know how the future will unfold; all we’re ever capable of is a reasoned guess based on fact.
Our emotions can sometimes prevent us from seeing things as they are . . .
An example: I first realise my car has a puncture, and immediately form an emotionally charged idea that it’s a damn nuisance. Within this are subsets of worrisome ideas – I worry about whether I’ve got all the right tools to fit the spare, whether I can locate the jacking point correctly and safely, how drenched I’ll end up in this rain, how much danger I’ll be in being parked on the hard-shoulder, and so on. All of this projection gets carried along by a negative emotional ferocity which prevents me from seeing the situation realistically. Things may, or may not, ‘go wrong’.
. . . we invariably discover that our situation is far removed from our past ideas of it
Then there’s the direct and actual experience that comes to me in a fragmented sequence of sensory awareness: I park up, get out and look at the flat. I think about calling the breakdown service I subscribe to but then decide to tackle it myself to save time. I notice the rain is no more than a drizzle. After seeing that none of the tools are missing, I locate the jacking point safely and easily. I begin to feel positive as I tighten the nuts on the spare, feeling more buoyant with each turn. I note that no 40-ton truck ran into me, and think ‘why did I get so stressed just now?’
Our perceptions of actual experience rarely ever accord with how we imagined it to be
Do you see the vast chasm that exists between the view I projected about the experience and the actuality of it? Of course, things may have gone differently. I may not have had the right tools and so had to wait two hours for the breakdown guy. And yet once again, that experience would have been very different from the one I’d projected and formed a view about. Even if the 40-ton truck had hit me it would have been, to say the least, ‘different’. The perception I have of the actual experience is markedly different from the unnecessarily speculative projected view.
Presence anchors the mind in what is, rather than what we thought it may have been
When I introduce presence at the outset, then both the projection and the actual experience are teased apart as I remain anchored and centred. The various pieces of the puzzle would separate and there’d be no fixation upon a picture of the future I could never accurately predict. Instead of wasting energy in a neurotic attachment to achieving a desired outcome, I instead let the situation unfold in accord with actual circumstances and actual decisions. Even if the circumstances are tricky, or if the decisions prove faulty, by remaining in presence I avoid falling prey to anxiety.
All stress and anxiety issue from an imagined self – a fiction created within
So presence protects us from neurotic issuances of selfhood. It’s the self-entity that imagines its own existence as a constant that is subject to experience. The ‘self’ is the created belief in an unchanging experiencer of experience, a constant observer of the observed, thinker of thoughts and so on. It’s a very compelling creation because it has the capacity to self-reflect, to be cognitively aware of its own formation as it manifests in selfhood. It also mistakes our feelings as proof of its own efficacy, that it’s actually doing something. It’s a phenomenally convincing deception.
With its neurotic projections, the self hides in plain view, obscuring our true being
Because the self-entity takes its own existence as an enduring totality of what we are, it gets deeply concerned about its own narrative. This means a neurotic attachment forms in respect to the story it creates and believes itself to be – the ‘self’ that is ‘me’. And it’s this fictionalised story that gets projected backwards and forwards in time and which creates stress and anxiety. It’s possible to progressively deconstruct the story by developing presence and in garnering contemplative insight, though we may use presence to immediately alleviate stress and anxiety.
Returning to presence, we step outside of our anxieties – we come home
Presence need never desert us in our hour of need, when the emotions are overheating and we’re in the grip of anxiety. Whenever we notice ourselves feeling uncomfortable in this way, we can immediately ask a question: ‘Where am I?’ This simple question invites us to return to presence, to come back to our own knowledge of being, to step outside of the story we currently inhabit. We come back to the wordless and silent certainty of ‘I am-ness’ that is presence. As we do so, we sense the puzzle of anxiety drifting apart as our former perspective dissolves.
In presence, the puzzle of anxiety is wrested from the self, dissolving piece by piece
The ‘self’ will argue against this. It’ll insist that the problem is as real as it imagines it to be. It thinks that unless it gets stuck in to sort matters out, then many things may ‘go wrong’ for it. It thinks it’ll experience a bad experience. Yet all this is illusion. There may be a ‘bad’ experience, but the badness is a judgemental overlay that comes as an addition to the experience. Neither the experience nor the adjudged badness is conveyed to any enduring entity of selfhood. These are just misshapen pieces of imagery; they need not be fitted together in an anxious puzzle.
Ultimately, the self is powerless. When we abandon its narrative, we realise this
It’s possible that right now, your ‘self’ thinks it’s reading this article. It may be a bit niggled, nattering away between the lines – ‘this is garbage, this Hariod person’s an idiot’. It may be putting together a little puzzle of stressfulness that convinces it that it’s wasting time on this, and the irritable feelings confirm what it believes – that it’s real. Or your ‘self’ may be excited at the prospect of trying out this simple remedy. Yet it can never do this; it can’t ‘do’ anything. It’s not what you are in reality. What you are beyond selfhood is reading, getting irritated or excited.
Life happens regardless of the self; in fact it flows more freely in its absence . . .
So adopting the measures discussed here is not something our ‘self’ ever does; though it’ll believe it can. We could say that our very real body and mind, or the loosely conceptual ‘me’ as a social construct, are what does things; though it’s more accurate to say ‘things are (being) done’. There simply is no enduring entity of agency, no unchanging doer of deeds. That’s all stuff we fictionalise in our minds and embed there as belief. And it’s this virtual version of our being that gets projected in time and creates unnecessary or disproportionate emotional stresses.
Keep asking ‘where am I?’, and watch as your life simplifies in presence
Of course, simply reading about this state of affairs can’t of itself untangle the mess of selfhood. And in any case, that’s not necessary to alleviate stress and anxiety. There’s a direct route available through presence which shifts the perspective – our point of view – so that a radical reduction of these unpleasant states comes about. ‘Where am I?’, this simple question, simplifies life itself. We see that simply ‘being’ as ‘I am’, and knowing this, is not a puzzle. The puzzle of selfhood is not what we are, nor is the puzzle of a puncture and how we deal with it.
Your thoughts and feelings are not what you are. Your self is not what you are.
Step outside of these stories. Come home to the sanctuary of what you are. You’ll see that the puzzle was just circumstances to which you respond in any case, though now with realism. Learn to laugh at your ‘self’. You may as well; it’ll keep coming back to you for a good while yet. Look at your negative judgements and anxious projections as fragments of a story authored by your ‘self’. That is what they are. That is all they are. See them only as that. Why inhabit them in a make believe life? Approach life authentically in presence, and life will become you.