January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
Meditation has been described here in August Meditations as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. Distraction was given in general terms as thought or thinking, the content of which is often dictated by underlying attachment and identification, the two main causes of suffering. Meditation may therefore be also described as the continuous waking from ego attachment and identification to what I call the hurt-self.
Now imagine a time in your youth when all things were bright and new. You were feeling pretty good about yourself and going about your business when someone came along and said or did something hurtful. This may have been your first encounter with hurt or one of many that didn’t bother you before but, for whatever reason, this time you held onto it. It stuck. This was a pivotal moment in your life for you had just identified as a hurt-self that needs protection and in doing so laid down the foundation for your emerging ego.
The significance of that moment lay in the fact that your awareness became confined to the ego’s narrow definition of itself as a hurt-self. Before this moment awareness flowed freely from moment to moment. After it, awareness came under the influence of the ego’s primary goal to maintain itself as it is or, to put it another way, to protect itself at all times. A narrative that ‘you’ were a ‘hurt you’ began as a way of keeping you safe, to which you began collecting instances of hurt to reinforce this narrative. When none were immediately available, past instances were recalled or ones yet to come were imagined.
With each new addition to the narrative the hurt-self became more and more sensitive, at times withdrawing into itself like a raw nerve touched by something sharp. This is what Pema Chodron calls the vulnerable, soft spot. It is the spot in your psyche that you don’t want the world to see and most want not to see in yourself. To accomplish this, you began directing awareness, yours and others, away from the spot. A persona or false self-image was created for outward appearance. While inwardly, you started burying the hurt-self through denial, an effort aided by feelings of shame and anger over what you believed to be your own weakness and vulnerability.
Ostensibly, these avoidance mechanisms were presented as a way to keep you safe. What was actually happening though was that the ego was keeping itself safe. This needs to be clearly understood. The ego is what it identifies with. If the attachment and identification to the hurt-self stopped, the ego believes it would stop or die. And to the extent that an individual believes himself to be the ego, he will naturally fear this death and want to keep his self-image intact and the hurt-self hidden. The result of these machinations is a self-made prison that limits awareness to seeing itself and the world through prison bars.
The bars of your prison are your own thoughts. Not sound, logical thought but the kind that is based upon the false premise that you really are the hurt self. And the corollary that you must protect that self at all cost if you are to survive in this world. Any problem arising from this false premise has no real solution because it is not based in reality. Following any such thought will lead to dead ends or be just plain gibberish.
Prison bars are numerous and vary from person to person but here are a few common ones.
- Thinking the same thoughts over and over again (Loop thinking, as I call it)
- Double-bind thinking, where two or more conflicting thoughts bind the awareness to an insolvable problem that by its nature creates an emotional conflict
- All or nothing thinking
- Catastrophic expectations
- Perfectionism and the belief that you must fix yourself
- Inner characters that tell you what to do and what not to do
- The persona or self-image that you present to the world
- Story-telling, wherein life events are made into a story that reinforces the hurt self
Thoughts such as those described above are all strategies of the ego that direct awareness into a maze of thinking that distort your experience so that you no longer live in the present moment but in your head. The only way to exit this maze is to turn your awareness towards what you’ve been avoiding. Meditation is a means to that end, but a word of warning.
The vulnerable, soft spot contains a lifetime of hurt. Where there is a history of mental illness or trauma it is better to seek professional psychological help than face it alone. For those with no such history, unraveling the knot in your heart will still be difficult. When times get tough, it may be of some consul to remember the words of Rumi who said, “That hurt we embrace becomes joy. Call it to your arms where it can change.”
January 1, 2019 § 1 Comment
In the 1973 film, “The Paper Chase,” Professor Kingsfield begins the first day of class with these words to his students, “You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Other than the fact that I’m not going to be a lawyer, that was me when I started meditating. My skull was definitely full of mush.
The “mush” was mostly fear. My skull was full of it. I had spent many years trying to figure it out through psychology and dream interpretation but to no avail. It was only when life presented me with the opportunity to devote myself to a course of daily meditation and Buddhist study that things started to turn around. Even then it took quite a while before I started to believe that all those things my skull was telling me was real, wasn’t real, at all.
I also had a lot of mush about enlightenment. Still do, I suppose. Looking back, I don’t really know what I thought it was. I know I conceived it as some higher state of consciousness that I suppose, because of my fear, I saw as a place of refuge. The joke, as I later discovered, was that the door to enlightenment was exactly where my fear was most intense! It wasn’t a place of refuge from the world. It was, is, being fully alert, while facing the world.
But I’m not there yet. I’m still dealing with my mush. Sitting, watching, trying to discern the difference between the thinking state and the present moment. It’s becoming clearer but only in my seeing just how much more mush there is to clear away.
By ‘clear away’ I don’t mean fix. That’s what I was trying to do through psychology. Trying to fix myself. Turns out that’s an endless road to nowhere. The only solution I know of now is to see the difference between the thinking state and the present moment, and then choose to be in the present moment. Sounds simple but there’s nothing harder.
Like everyone else there are years, if not lifetimes, of conditioned thinking to see through. Conditioning that has left me identifying with an aggregate of thoughts and things that go into the making of my fear filled self. Conditioning that has me shy away from my mind’s most sensitive and vulnerable areas, while simultaneously trying to protect them. I am buoyed, though, by the growing certainty that success will come. Maybe not in this life. Maybe not in the next or even in ten lives after that, but at least I know nothing can stop it, now.
In the past I thought meditation would lead to some alternate state of consciousness that was somehow “elsewhere” from the one I was in. It never occurred to me that the alternate state I sought was the one I was in, just minus all the mush. And that just by watching and being friendly to all that is going on right now, without looking to the past or to the future and without trying to “fix” anything in myself, that I may realize this present moment consciousness, right now. And that it has been here all along. Life unfolding in the seemingly mundane activity of daily existence. My life. Your life, that is all Life.