Notes on a talk by Michael Stone, Centre of Gravity, Toronto. September 18, 2012. www.centreofgravity.org
When you can bring attention to the beginning of the inhale, concentration develops. If you can keep attention one inhale after another, and the body is at ease, then dualities might begin to fall away. And meditation practice can feel fresh, every moment is fresh. The breath is always fresh.
Some part of the mind always wants to be in our ideas. “It’s Tuesday today. It’s the end of summer.” These are conceptual constructs superimposed on our experience. These are abstractions we use to explain what it feels like to be here at a time. This time. We don’t know what’s going to happen later.
The Buddha these days is often described as a philospher but he spoke of himself as a doctor. He doesn’t teach ideas but methods so that we can clarify for ouselves what’s meaningful, where there is attachment, how we can be free. He thought there was a way of life that helped clarify how things really are. Buddha saw how life (collective, cultural, biological) wounded us. He also thought our suffering could heal us, our suffering can be the material we use to become awake.
We have many ideas about what makes meaning in our lives. Our sense of who we are is learned from parents and school and friends. I was listening to the radio this week and they were playing old programs, maybe it’s an anniversary year, and you can hear how people talked 60 years ago. We don’t describe ourselves that way anymore. It’s always changing.
In the Buddha’s time you were born into a caste, a class. Your life was fixed, you had a destiny, there were limits to what you could do and limits to your spiritual attainments. The Buddha started to see an utterly different view, that a person is more than what has been laid down for them by their culture. The Buddha’s teachings were radical – in part because he didn’t have ideas but anti-ideas. He felt a person didn’t have to be sculpted by her/his caste or gender. He asked his sangha to shave their heads and wear robes – so the first impression is neither your gender or your caste. It was a radical social experiment.
For the Buddha, the self is a construct in the same way that “Tuesday night” is a construct. A person could, through their own acts, alter deep life patterns, free themselves from their conditionings, cast off social and psychological rhythms and be free. There were people ready to hear this. The Buddha didn’t make all this up, it was there, just beneath the social fabric. Do you understand the Buddha’s promise of freedom? How? How do you understand it?
The Buddha was committed to a meditation practice so that people could free themselves. He used the word bhavana to describe this practice. Bhava: to become. The act of meditation means the freedom to be who you are. A person is a subject not an object. We are an object, even to our own subjectivity. We make ourselves into an object when we think about ourselves. A subject cannot judge itself. This was the Buddha’s view of self. As we create a sense of self, we create a something that we start to relate to as if it exists, as if a self exists independent of the world around us.
Carl Jung is going to take on this notion of the self. Buddha says that we see that the construction zone of the self via practice, it’s revealed through practice as the constructs begin to fall away. The self is not what you think it is. Jung dared to pose this radical question: what is the self that’s being treated? If we don’t know what a self is, how can it be treated? Perhaps the self is bhavana – it’s cultivated, permeable, always in transformation.
“There is a destination, a possible goal, beyond the alternative stages dealt with in our last chapter. That is the way of individuation. Individuation means becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as ‘individuality’ embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as ‘coming to selfhood’ or ‘self-realization.’” (All Jung quotes from “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” Part 2: Individuation)
Jung studied at the worst psychiatric asylum in Europe. When someone has psychosis, it seeems like the unconscious is trying to get the ego to listen to it. He took the idea of the ego and separated it from the idea of the self. He came to believe that the ego was only a small part of the self, most of the self was the unconscious. And that the unconscious was always at work. “…the unconscious never rests. It seems to be always at work, for even when asleep we dream… Not a day passes but we make some slip of the tongue, or something slips our memory which at other times we know perfectly well, or we are seized by a mood whose cause we cannot trace.”
There are some patterns we need to pay attention to, and if we keep pushing them away, they can develop their own form, their own personality, their own ego. Perhaps there’s some part of you that is unfulfilled. For some people this part of the self composts, it self-organizes into a new vibrant system. That system can split off and develop its own ego. In schitzophrenia the split off parts of the personality develop their own ego. If there’s some area of life that you push away, or organize your life around it in order to avoid it, it will show up in dreams, slips of the tongue, coincidences, and if it is continually unheeded, it could develop from neuroses to psychoses.
“…the unconscious processes stand in a compensatory relation to the conscious mind. I expresly use the word ‘compensatory’ and not the word ‘contrary’ because conscious and unconscious are not necessarily in opposition to one another, but complement one another to form a totality, which is the self… According to this definition the self… embraces not only the conscious but also the unconscious psyche… There is little hope of our ever being able to reach even approximate consciousness of the self, since however much we may make conscious there will always exist an indeterminate and indeterminable amount of unconscious material which belongs to the totality of the self.”
For Freud the self sits above the unconscous – the ego mediates between what is un/conscious. For Jung both the conscious and unconscious are parts of the self. Because the unconscious has no limit, you can’t say what the self is. To wake up, to realize who you are, means opening to an unconscious element that you will never understand.
From a dharma perspective this view might remind us of Bodhidharma (5/6 century CE) who was responsible for bringing the dharma from India to China. When he gets to China he meets Emperor Wu who invites him to tea. The Emperor is eager to get to the heart of the matter, and asks Bodhidharma, “What is the core teaching of the Buddha?” “Unholy nothing.” “Well then who is standing in front of me?” “I don’t know.” Then the emperor realizes that this person is expressing his practice, Bodhidharma is saying that the dharma is not holy, it’s just this. This moment. He’s not saying ‘I don’t know,’ he’s saying ‘I can’t know.’ We all fall into the trap of answering some variant of the question: what is the meaning of my life? Jung says that realizing the self means seeing that the self is ungraspable (because most of it is unconscious).
“But the more we become conscious of ourselves through self-knowledge, and act accordingly, the more the layer of the personal unconscious that is superimposed on the collective unconscious will be diminished. In this way, there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests. This widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be conpensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead, it is a function of relationship to the world of objects, bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large. The complications arising at this stage are no longer egotistic wish-conflicts, but difficulties that concern others as much as oneself.”
Here’s the good news. You’re following your breath. If you keep staying with the beginning of the inhale, there’s some part of consciousness that wants to come in and understand what’s happening and refer it back to itself. The ego is always wanting to know what it is. So it takes whatever is happening in the mind and creates a self out of it. The ego comes in and hijacks experience constantly. As soon as you start to get concentrated in sitting meditation it’s hard not to think, “Oh, I’m so concentrated.”
The collective unconscious isn’t full of aspects of the psyche that have been repressed, it is a deeper strata of memory. It contains cultural, genetic, mythological patterns.
What is this part of us that takes a risk and fails and holds the memory of that failure, worships at that shrine? We might get scared and then confine ourselves, live in a smaller world. This is how neuroses can develop. Instead of opening to the unconscious that’s trying to regulate the self and bring it a larger view, and connect it with deeper currents, the adjustment happens at the level of the persona, and the self gets smaller and smaller.
The goal is not happiness but freedom. To experience yourself as the ocean is not to be happy or unhappy, it is to be the waves. As we drop in, happiness might be a byproduct of analysis, not a goal. In Buddhism the byproduct is compassion, a sense of shared humanity. When you’re actually yourself you’re touched by the pain of others – it’s freeing to feel others in this deep way.
Can we really dig into our practice and get concentrated? What is the mind running away from? Why am I so distracted? Why is the mind so busy? What is actually structuring my life? What’s underneath all this? If I’m an anxious person – I want to build a relation to this anxiety so I can start to work with it. Why do we love our anxiety so much? I want to see all the parts of myself that keep getting in the way, that are annoying, or horrifying, and build a relationship with them. Both Jung and the Buddha express the archetype of the wounded healer.
Jung: to follow the calling that moves you away from your persona. How many of us are willing to live the life that we’re being called to live? So oftenwe show up for others frozen into our persona.
If you want to be free
Get to know your real self.
It has no form, no appearance,
No root, no basis, no abode,
But is lively and buoyant.
It responds with versatile facility,
But its function cannot be located.
Therefore when you look for it,
You become further from it;
When you seek it,
You turn away from it all the more.