In one of his many insightful talks on the nature of consciousness, self and ego, fear and insecurity, Alan Watts plays a game which he would humorously refer to as ‘chasing the heebie-jeebies’. The point of this game was to reveal the ‘below surface’ thoughts operating when we think.
Take, for example, death. I am afraid of death. It gives me the ‘heebie-jeebies’. Well, what is the problem, death, or the heebie-jeebies? It appears the heebie-jeebies are actually the problem. They make me feel anxious. So being anxious is the problem. Well, I only feel anxious because I don’t think I have been living a full and rich life. So that is the problem. When I think about the absence of richness and fulfillment in my life I run away facing it. So running away is the problem. But, I only run away because I do not know how to answer it. So being unable to answer this existential question is the problem. With each question being another step, as we walk down the stairs we uncover questions we would not originally have asked ourselves.
To take another example: talking to strangers. I am afraid of talking to strangers. It makes me nervous. So, being unable to talk to strangers isn’t the problem, nervousness is. But I am only nervous because I think they will judge me. Okay, so fear of judgement is the problem. I fear judgement because I care so much about what others think instead of what I think. So, my lack of faith in myself is the problem. I lack faith in myself because I focus on my failures rather than my success. Now this is the problem. But I think this way because my failures were always rebuked and my successes were never praised, so I developed a slavish tendency towards self-abuse. So, self-abuse is the problem. Yet, that happened in the past and this is the present, so holding onto my pain is the problem. However, I only hold onto my pain because I cannot think any other way. I cannot think any other way because this way of thinking is known, comfortable, and reassuring. It is all these things because I am afraid. I am afraid of trying something new because I will have to leave my old self behind. If I leave it behind, I become vulnerable and exposed. If I allow myself to do this, I might get hurt. I do not want to get hurt because I am fragile and do not want my security shaken and assaulted. So, perhaps this, then, is the problem.
Of course, you can keep going and going…
The game is insightful, especially when written down, because you begin to see the complex interactions and multi-textured pattern of every thought. While we think in specifics and particulars, behind and beneath (or rather, within and throughout) each thought is a textured and multi-layered process occurring. In the example the fear of death, the fear cannot be severed from feelings (anxiety, dread, disappointment), thoughts (reflections on an unfulfilling present, nostalgia for a lost past, and the expectation of a frustrated future), and bodily sensations (tensing, clenching, restlessness). Everything occurs together in a wonderfully complex process.
The game is a type of hide-and-seek, or rather, a game of chase with yourself, where you try to locate the fountainhead of a particular thought or feeling. Frustratingly, it is like chasing a shadow, no matter how close you get, it keeps getting away. The lesson in all of this is to pay attention, attention to how thoughts are never isolated but imbued with the messages of so many other thoughts in an ever unfolding pattern of complexity.