Experiment: Dropping Layers

Background: What question or issue motivates this experiment?

This is copied from Piet's chapter 16.

There is no need to do anything. What is more, there is no possibility to do anything. Attempts to do are illusory, and feed back into a grand illusion that in turn seems to sustain further attempts to do. The only way to break this magic spell is to stop the habitual stream of continuous attempts at doing. But this stopping cannot be a deed. It can only follow from insight into the already, into the fact that everything is already complete as it is, with no need for any further correction, manipulation, or fabrication.

Description: What should experimenters do?

(Also copied from Piet's chapter 16)

Our whole life we have been conditioned to see problems in need of a solution. And our whole life we have been busy dealing with those problems, trying to solve them, or run away from them, or deny them, or transform them into other problems. Now let us contemplate a radical alternative, as a working hypothesis: there are no problems.

Without trying to judge whether or not this working hypothesis makes sense, let us test it out, for a while at least, giving it an honest chance to reveal to us a different realm, different from the realm we thought we had been living in so far.

Take a problem, any problem, although it will be much easier to start with a rather small problem first. Try to just hold it in your mind for a while, in a neutral way. Notice how immediately all kind of solutions offer themselves in the face of this problem, in a broad spectrum ranging from practical approaches to just wishing it away.

Now instead of wishing it away, consider it already gone, and never having been there in the first place, in any real sense. Now iterate this process: for any objection that rises against this conclusion, drop that objection too. Then drop the objections that arise against dropping the objections, and also drop the objections against dropping objections against dropping objections, and so on, layer by layer at first, and if possible all layers together.

Lab reports

Sitting outside at a cafe, just off the cell phone with an unresponsive bureaucrat trying to get something set up for a conference in November I'm helping plan.  It was indeed a problem, still haven't gotten through to anyone who can actually help me.  So I thought this would be a good medium level problem for trying the "no problem" exercise.

Mood: frustrated, of course.  Many thoughts like "Why do they even let these useless people keep their jobs?" etc.  I can counteract by noticing that it is a nice Southern California day, and that life will go on, etc. but I don't think the exercise is about dissociating from the problem.  The problem is that I perceive something is between here and where I need to be, and an unwanted future that I could get to where I didn't get done what I needed (because of those fools, etc.).

Instead of imagining that it is me in that future, I pay attention to the fact that the image of the future is  generated now in the present.    I'm not accessing myself in the dire future, I'm accessing an appearance in the present.  Will that even be "me" if that future does indeed show up? Of course now the mood has completely changed, even though the problem is still in mind. The problem seems to be a subclass of the claim "the required pattern is not appearing on the screen of experience."  Have you ever been looking at an image on a screen, perhaps slides at a conference on a stand-up screen, and then there is some wind and the screen flutters?  You are thrown out of seeing the pattern to seeing that the pattern is made out of something.  This feels like that. Allowing all the varied dreaded scenarios play out, but their image patterns seem formed out of some stuff I can also see fluctuating just a little. The thoughts generating these sentences are included. If I get the bureaucrat back on the phone, that will be included too.

Piet, I don't know if in this description there is some of the "loosening up" you spoke of from experience (the particular patterns) to appearance.

-- JT  - August 16, 2004

With very small problems, the “dropping” is not difficult. In fact, as I am looking for a few very small problems to start the exercise with, I realize that it is a very normal, frequent occurrence to drop small problems. It happens several times a week that something comes up that looks like a small problem to me at first (I have a tendency to see a lot of problems!), but after a little while I decide that it isn’t necessary to view it as a problem.


Rain is a good example. Recently I forgot to bring my raingear on a camping trip. When I found out that there would likely be a thunderstorm every afternoon, I thought I had a problem. But then I decided it was not really problem, the worst that could happen was getting wet, and while that might be unpleasant, it would just be another experience that I would and could live with.


However, it does not strictly depend on the perceived “size” of a problem (the subjective impression of its importance) how hard or easy it is to drop. I had a relatively minor (and uninteresting) problem this week and did not quite manage to drop it.

At work, I had to book a flight ticket at a special government airfare for one of my bosses. This requires a special signature. I found out halfway through the process that the only person who was authorized to sign our forms was a finance manager who recently retired. I could not book the ticket unless I could figure out how to get the new finance manager’s signature on file with the travel agency. So there I had a problem, and I said to myself, “This is a good problem for practicing. Let’s drop that problem, it’s not necessary to see this as a problem.” My rational mind thought this was a small problem and should be easy to drop. Then I started making phone calls to find out how we could get the new finance manager’s signature on file. I thought I was doing great: not panicking but just going about my business and letting things simply unfold as they would. I needed to talk to a number of different people on the phone to get this thing in order. Soon I noticed: they talked to me as if THEY thought I was very worried. They calmed me down, reassured me, and offered their sympathy. To them, my voice must have sounded as if I thought I had a huge problem. And they were right, I was indeed worried, even though I had resolved not to be and the rational mind didn’t think it was necessary to worry. I almost want to say: I didn’t THINK that I had a problem, but I still FELT there was a problem, and other people could easily detect that! There were no objections in my mind against dropping the problem – I could not have named any. The experience of having a problem was at a different level. There were gut-level worries to drop, but I couldn’t drop them. I just harbored them, until finally the signature issue was resolved and I could book the ticket.


Jetlag is not a problem for me. Not because I don’t have it; I sure do when I travel to another continent. But I decided a few years ago that it would not be a problem for me and it isn’t. I simply live with my funny sleeping patterns for a few days. After traveling west, I enjoy getting up very early in the morning, and after traveling east, I enjoy staying up very late at night. And somehow I have no problem accepting that I get tired at odd times. I contemplated this today when a friend who just came back from a vacation in Europe complained about jetlag and asked me if I had any advice how to get rid of it. I had none, but we had an interesting conversation about the possibility of dropping the problem. He seemed to understand immediately the concept of simply not viewing jetlag as a problem. Yet he insists on holding on to the problem as something that needs to be complained about. At first I thought this was ridiculous and I teased him a little. But even if it is ridiculous, it is just human. I have other areas in my life where I do the same: Declare something as a problem and staunchly refuse to change my view of it even if I understand that I could. Sometimes we seem to be attached to a problem, and aware of being attached, and aware that it is not necessary, and we still want to continue being attached. (This is very different from the story above, where I declare that there is no problem and do my best to drop it, but inside keep feeling worried.)

-- LW - August 17, 2004

This was so intriguing that I've had to come out of self-imposed exile to think about something other than radiative transfer, and it is refreshing.

I started doing this about 3 days ago, and I definitely agree with LW that this exercise somehow comes more easily to me than the others. To start with, I'll consider what I think is a minor problem. I've gotten very used to drinking leaf teas, and can't seem to do without them. I get headaches, etc if I go without tea for even a day. Right now, I'm visiting my parents in NC and as they just got back from traveling, things are not very organized, in particular, I haven't been able to locate any tea leaves. There is a box of tea bags, and I deicde to have those as a last resort. So, this is the problem: how to go without a decent cup of tea for several days. Some tea lovers would even classify this as a major problem :-). So, as suggested, I decided not to consider this as a problem.

I notice that even the act of "carrying the problem" around is different from just "having the problem". Because the minute I say, I'll carry the problem around for a while, I begin to see that it does not have any real power over me. Of course, "dropping the problem" is different from "carrying it around", but for me, it already exists in this first step, i.e., in the recognition that I'm just carrying it around--this tells me that it is something that I've created, in some sense, and so it cannot have any real power over me.

The next day, I wake up after having slept very badly, i.e., not really having been able to sleep. This is on the borderline of a major problem for me. But, since I'm at home with my parents, and I don't really have to do anything, I'll call it a minor problem. I'm not as successful with this immediately. The decision not to consider it a problem is more difficult because I have a persistent headache from lack of sleep. Anyway, by the afternoon, the headache has resided and I'm occupied with other things, and the "problem" also seems to go away because I'm not paying as much attention to it. Sometimes, when it comes back, I try to do this excercise. It does help. But I notice that when I'm able to drop this problem, other problems surface, like the fight I had with a friend, etc.

Finally, today, I'll consider what would be called a major problem. I'll be applying for jobs soon, and expect to have a pretty hectic travel schedule. But, I should say that even though Piet had suggested it recently, I've been prepping myself for the last couple of months now in regards to this, trying not to consider it as a problem, though, of course, it wasn't as articulated in my mind before as it is now. So, I've almost gotten to the point where I look forward to it with more of a feeling of excitement rather than trepidation. One thing that really helped me is a friend's uggestion--he said that I could think of it like I'm a rock star going on a tour :-). That is what it's like: you go around the country giving talks at the institutions you're interested in. And at this point, I consider it more of a minor problem than a major one. It still is a minor problem for me only because I haven't finalized all the dates of my talks and fellwoship application schedule, but I expect I can do that soon. It's really just a problem of time constraints at this point, i.e., trying to get everything done in time. Also, it helps me to think of it in perspective, i.e., how will I feel about it when I'm 50 years old--will I still see it as a problem? Of course not.

In summary, I've noticed that a problem doesn't like to be carried, it likes to be had. The minute I go from "I have problem x" to "I'm carrying around problem x", I can start to see that it doesn't have real power over me. It is almost like it's a kind of shape-shifter, the minute you say, I'm carrying around x1, it will move from x1 to some other state.

-- SC - August 21, 2004

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