On Tibetan visualization practice
January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
A common Tibetan Buddhist practice uses visualization to hallucinate a central figure, usually a deity, out of which many other figures are then made to appear. When all these personages have appeared they are reabsorbed back into the central figure that is then reabsorbed back into the practitioner. The ultimate aim of this practice is to realize that all phenomena are but a dream illusion born from our imagination. A central part of this process is realizing the emptiness of the central and accompanying figures before they are reabsorbed.
In the West we have little time to spend on elaborate visualizations but in a way it isn’t necessary, as we already have created in our imagination numerous “others” to amuse and berate us. It only takes a little bit of self-observation to see that this is true. We are always imagining our self as happy or sad, worthy or unworthy, or in some other fashion as a “this or that” kind of person. Or that we often have on going dialogues with the image of some significant other like a father, mother or spouse (who often take positions opposing our own).
It is easy to see how others act as if their inner persons are real. An individual who was historically abused will often behave, for example, as if an abuser is still around when no such person exists, except but in memory. What is not so easy to see is the strength of our own belief in these inner others and how it leads us to live a life of dream illusion.
In the Tibetan practice the solution to living in dream illusion is to reabsorb the inner personages back into the mind. This may sound mysterious but in fact it has its parallel in modern therapeutic psychology that directs us to make unconscious content conscious. The lesson we learn from the Tibetan practice is that it was only when our thoughts were identified as self or not self that they became autonomous figures. To reintegrate them we must reverse this process by realizing that the inner faces we put on our thoughts are not real people but our own imagining. This allows us to accept the thoughts we disowned, denied or projected out into the world and to reabsorb them back into consciousness.
Inner others are not the result of an overactive imagination. As social beings it is natural for the brain to present ideas as people. But the mind does not stop there. These others also serve as guardians of our mental health in that they act to prevent unwanted or dangerous thoughts from rising into consciousness. It is because of this that Tibetan practices emphasize the need to first realize the emptiness of these figures and the thoughts they represent before reabsorbing them.
There is a positive effect on consciousness that comes from realizing the emptiness of your inner others that has its negative counterpart when this realization is lacking.
Whereas before it seemed that your awareness was crowded by thought, this new state of consciousness has an open and spatial quality to it that creates a feeling of distance between you and your thoughts. When the effect is positive your mind is clearer and more open. When negative, the effect is like suddenly stepping off a cliff.
People who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can and do experience this “stepping into mid-air” effect quite strongly. It arises when their sense of safety is suddenly stripped away leaving them feeling completely vulnerable, exposed and terrified. Needless to say this can be quite debilitating.
Even if you do not have PTSD you still need to take care. Your inner others guard you from undesirable content by directing your attention away from the unconscious. Once you realize their essential emptiness they lose that quality. But as you have yet to realize the emptiness of the new content, encountering it can be as debilitating as a PTSD attack. It is advisable to expand your awareness in this new space gradually by nurturing the realization that the true nature of your unconscious is also emptiness.