On Bridging the Gap Between Fantasy and Reality

A few months ago, I was sitting on a bus daydreaming when an advertising hoarding caught my eye. An impressionistic image of a fast car was emblazoned with the words, The Road To Better Is Endless. Indeed. We can always have, do, or be more or better, according to the logic of the self (and the commercial markets which feed our never-ending appetite for seeming betterment on every level). Whatever pinnacle of material or spiritual achievement or attainment we’re fixated on reaching, we want to get from here to there.

Let’s look at how this wanting-more-or-better mechanism works. The self – the bundle of thoughts and sensations that we take ourselves to be – inevitably feels deficient or lacking in some way. It’s not until we really start to notice this tendency that we realise its ubiquitous nature. Listen to your self-talk, and you’ll hear what I’m referring to; that stream of commentary that issues forth from within, describing and diagnosing endlessly. You need to lose weight. You shouldn’t have said that to her. Why is he speaking to me like that? I need to sort out my money issues… This inner voice can be compelling, particularly when its assertions are backed up by the images of memory or imagination and sometimes powerful physical sensations or emotions. Having believed what the voice is telling us, it’s natural that we’d set about trying to find solutions to the ills or problems it has conjured so convincingly. Needless to say, the very same inner voice – the thought stream of the self – also proffers possible fixes for whatever it deems wrong.

Much as some people say the pharmaceutical industry creates new disease categories and disorders for which it can then sell cures, the self declares itself deficient and then offers up possible solutions to that very same deficiency. It’s only when we really investigate that the absurdity and illogic of this mechanism becomes clear. The same self acts as prosecution and defence, judge, jury and defendant. There’s often a split apparent there – the part that is doing the criticizing and the part being criticized, for example. We can even hear this split in our thoughts; God, you’ve always been useless. Why can’t you get it together? Who is talking to whom?

The superego – that inner critical, controlling voice – is particularly adept at serving up should and shouldn’ts, and telling us how we should be. Complete with exhortations, instructions, and images of how we should look, feel, or be in the future – inevitably better than how we are in the present moment – it can feel like we’re at its mercy. We see the images in our mind’s eye of how we should be, and take them as proof that we are indeed deficient as we are. And yet the idea of stepping off this merry-go-round can seem impossible or crazy, especially if we believe that we are deficient and that how we are in this moment is not okay.

The self will co-opt anything to its mission of making itself better, of perfecting itself in its own image, including inquiry. It’s natural that we would come to the Living Inquiries with this mindset; it’s the way that we’ve always approached everything, because that’s what the self does. However, if we continue to look deeply, we discover several things. One, that the Living Inquiries do not work as a way to improve the self; rather, the inquiries reveal that there isn’t a self here to be improved. Two, that it is possible and even okay to be here exactly as we are in this moment, which after all our striving for betterment is often a huge relief. Three, that it’s less painful to meet reality as it is than to stay suspended between here and there, between fantasy and reality. In fact, it’s unfelt pain that drives the whole mechanism.

Seductive as it may be, the endless road to better is exhausting and ultimately leads nowhere. Many of us have experienced reaching some long-nurtured goal or dream only to discover that it hasn’t bought us the salvation that we longed for. By painstakingly investigating the whole fantasy of better, we can free ourselves from mortgaging our present to an imagined future, and inhabit the reality of this moment, whatever it contains. And what could be better than that?

Things happened, and I responded. That’s it.

I’ve felt physically unwell over the last few days. For me, this is a sign that something needs my attention, that some as-yet unconscious material is ready to surface. The feelings – unpleasant bodily sensations, nausea, a slight headache, a sense of shakiness all over – haven’t been accompanied by any particular thoughts or memories. There’s been nothing specific on my mind.

Yesterday, I met with another facilitator and sat for a while, eyes closed, saying nothing. After a few minutes, a statement came: “This is what happened to me.” It felt like a declaration, a testimony. There were no details – I didn’t (and still don’t) know exactly what the word this referred to. I only knew that it was important to stay with the statement and let it resonate.

Tears came, as they often do when I inquire. Then another statement: “Just be with me and listen.” The feeling was adamant – all it wanted was for us to be with it and listen. (There often comes a time in inquiry when questions are no longer the point, when there is a deep desire to be left to be as we are. This was clearly one of those times.)

More words came in. “I have responses.” Again, this was a statement of fact, a testifying to the truth. The only possible reaction from my facilitator/companion was, “Yes, you have responses.” We stayed for a while, acknowledging the having of responses. It began to become clear that all the sensations of unwellness were responses, an accumulation of bodily responses.

“Things happened, and I responded.” The stark simplicity of these words touched me deeply. A wave of upset came as I saw images of myself sitting in various therapy rooms over the years. All of that talking now seemed such a waste, when all that had really been required was the deep acknowledgement of this truth. Yes, things had happened, and I’d had responses. The adamant feeling became even more adamant. “Just be with me and listen. Enough with the questions already. I’ve had enough of being prodded, poked and questioned.” We continued to listen, sitting silently for a while longer. Some relief came in, along with the tears.

Today, more has come to light about the event-and-response chain. Things happened, my body and I responded, and then I denied, disowned, or covered up my responses. Bewildered and overwhelmed by both the happenings and the responses, I spent years trying hard to understand, in the belief that understanding would relieve the responses and somehow negate the happenings (hence all those years in therapy rooms).

Let’s break this down. There was an initial happening or event. For example, I remember being smacked on my bare bottom for wetting the bed at the age of four, still lying in the damp sheets, barely awake. This happening had its initial impact, of course – the sting of the smack, the energetic force of my parents’ anger and disapproval. (The word impact implies the coming in of external force. As children, we are impacted by and highly sensitive to external forces, both malign and benign.) Then came my response – immediate, visceral, spontaneous and not mediated by the thinking mind – which included shock, shame and humiliation.  And then came the third layer, which was my attempt to understand, manage, control or fix both the response and the happening itself. We do our best to hide, minimise and mediate both the impact and our response, however impossible that may be. In this case, I tried my best to please my parents, to be a good girl, to not incur their anger again, to deny that the whole episode had had an impact, and to hide my shock and shame. Like nearly all children, I believed I was the cause of my parents’ anger towards me and I could not conceive of the smack being anything other than my fault, despite a vague feeling of the injustice of it.

My sense is that many kinds of mental distress or illness arise out of this tangle of happenings, responses and attempts to manage the happenings and responses. When the happenings are catastrophic, traumatic, injurious or unjust, our responses are proportional. (Newton’s Third Law of Motion comes to mind – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.) We find ourselves awash with intense and overwhelming sensation and feeling, incapable of effectively (in the longer term) managing, controlling or fixing what we are experiencing, and then we believe (or are told) that that incapacity is evidence of our deficiency, defectiveness or inherent wrongness. When we undergo such happenings regularly or even infrequently, and our responses are punished, unheard, ignored or unattended to, the spiral continues on, each happening and response adding to the existing tangle.

This cycle of event – response – management (the part of us that we often refer to as the self or ego tries valiantly to manage or control events and responses, a job which is bound to leave it overwhelmed and floundering in self-doubt) leads to a whole host of behaviours. People pleasing, addiction and compulsion, every shade of trying and controlling, so many of our supposed failures or foibles come back to this truth: something happened, and we responded, and then we tried to deal with both. At four years old – or at any point in childhood and into adulthood, depending on our circumstances – we didn’t have the support, tools or understanding to do so without inadvertently causing further unintentional harm to ourselves and sometimes others.

Things happened, and we had responses. What we need as children – at any age – is to be allowed to have our inner responses to happenings. In the space of inquiry, we get to have our responses – from any time in our lives, both long-past and present – without the burden of having to manage them. We can finally let the responses respond exactly as they are doing, without having to hide, deny, explain, justify, question or minimise them.  It is such a relief to say, “Just be with me and listen. Things happened, and I had responses.”