Thursday, April 10, 2008

Is Buddhism Scared of Reality?

This post is not done (not un-done...not done, but I could not wait to post it for the final edit, so apologies for any non-sensical-ness):

It is true that as Buddhism says, things both appear to exist, and also do not have any self-existing, and inherently existing nature. That both these things are true is something that the meditator must grapple with as they traverse daily live in the world of the grasping ego, infused with the experience of emptiness. This paradox is what makes it possible for us to practice at all, really, because if it was simple, like “well nothing really exists at all,” then we would think we were insane for being so attached to things. The part that says “things appear,” well, that saves us really. Because, of course, they do. Things appear. And we believe in their existence. We believe in our own existence. It is a habit, it is said, that has no beginning, nor an end. And yet, freedom is possible. And no tradition shies away from defining in utterly definitive terms what that freedom is, even if the words used have the meaning, “ineffable.” In my opinion, freedom is in the eye of the beholder, whoever or whatever that may be.
For the devout buddhist, freedom is total freedom from all grasping. The ungrasping mind is completely open, unobstructed, free. This is the jack pot, so to speak, and though most of us just get glimpses of this here and there, there are those who are said to live in such a state for the duration of the life of their body. And so the Buddhist goes on hoping. “Maybe, this will happen to me!”
But until then, one starts to wonder. What about all this suffering along the way? Is there some way to ameliorate this? Especially for those of us with “psychological problems” that blip above the norm of emotional fluctuation. Those of us who find ourselves curled up in a ball crying, unable to interact with our partner because a particularly heinous memory from childhood has been triggered. (For example). Buddhism has an answer for that, too. The answer is to see everything as unreal, as impermanent, and to not grasp at it. “Go for the gold.”
This can work in a certain sense. When I am having a particularly difficult emotion, I may be thinking that I am this emotion, that my existence is in fact defined by this emotion. To see it as unreal, to see myself as unreal, may in fact be very comforting. It may release me just enough so that I can see this emotional experience and its constituent parts as not defining me or my entire life. I may be able to work through the experience temporarily. I may in fact be able to create a new mental habit of relating to this particular emotional event without as much of a charge. This may in time, release this “knot' in my psyche and I may cease to experience this traumatic trigger at all.
This is the best possible outcome. But what about when it does not happen that way? Here is an example of this scenario, which I have experienced:
I have an emotional trigger which is very strong, and bowls me over, reducing me to a child like state. I work with it in terms of sensation and thought in meditation, observing it and reassuring myself of its impermanence and lack of inherent existence, and then it somehow dissolves in the light of my continued awareness. Over time it ceases to arise, at least in my conscious awareness. At some point I believe I have “conquered” this particular emotional fixation. But then something unexpected happens. I have another triggering experience and this intense emotional reaction that I used to have, suddenly comes back, stronger than ever before, so strong in fact that meditation is impossible. This is most likely because I had not “conquered it,” I had only moved it from one form to another - from conscious to unconscious. How could this happen? How could a conscious thought and emotion, through awareness practice, become unconscious? Well, there are many explanations possible for that. Here is one.
Whatever emotion/thought/sensation miasm that one experiences as an “emotional trigger” or outburst of the mind, is not an isolated thing. It has many thoughts feelings and associated belief systems that aid it in its arising in your mind. These other associated thoughts, feelings, and belief systems, may be partially conscious, and partially unconscious. It is quite a process unpeeling the layers of the mind, is it not?
The other relevant thing is that - as Freud made apparent in his discovery of the relevance of the unconscious mind and all it contains – the mind will hide what it cannot endure from the conscious mind. And it will do whatever it needs to in order to accomplish this. It is the mechanism of self-preservation. Our brain is designed this way. The Buddhists call this the “ego” (the thing that wants to believe it exists, and will do whatever it has to in order to uphold this belief), and psychologists call this “repression.” Whatever you call it, it happens. Furthermore, thoughts/feelings/beliefs that cause great distress often develop during a time when we do not have language (i.e. between the ages of 1 and 3), and so take on a backdrop sort of flavor, one which is very hard to identify with the conscious mind. And so when you dissolve the constituent parts of an emotional reaction using mindfulness and awareness, you may not be dissolving all of the thoughts, feelings, and belief systems that brought about that emotional response. You may have, however, sent the message (unconsciously of course) to your mind that that particular “tip of the iceberg” is unwelcome in your mind. “No Problem,” says the mind, “we will do our best to hide whatever else is going on here. That way you can feel in control, and your identity can remain unthreatened! Yay!” (The mind is generally pretty happy when this happens, at least for a very brief amount of time). (Thus the blissed out young meditators). Unfortunately, when some part of this unconscious thought, feeling, belief system gets triggered again, what happens? The house of cards falls again, and this time, it is even scarier because you “thought you were over that!”
Now just to be clear, there is no problem with this according to Buddhism. In fact, according to Buddhism, there is no problem with anything. Because of the non-dual reality, that though things appear, they also lack inherent existence. Furthermore, some schools of thought name this process as traversion closer to the truth, as it were.
But even if you wholeheartedly, with your best Buddhist outfit on, agree with this, and perhaps have even seen it to be so, “with your own eyes,” you may still feel that things, in particular your emotional life, are a problem sometimes. A big problem in fact.
Deep emotional habits that lay in the psyche in such a way that the conscious mind has only minimal contact with them, often are traumatic energies of emotion that lay dormant, waiting for triggers and events which can be interpreted as the initial cause of the emotional reaction. Take, for example, a Vietnam veteran who checks cans of food in the grocery store with great anxiety to see if they are booby trapped to explode and kill someone. This is an example of a traumatic emotional response looking for a trigger in the present moment. There is no doubt that the very energy of loving mindfulness can have a great impact on this kind of intense emotional experience.
In addition, however, it is often necessary to validate emotions. As Alice Miller (the psychoanalyst who in my opinion saved psychoanalysis by refuting parts of Freud's drive theory as a fearful response to authority in her book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware), says, many of our emotional responses become repressed during childhood, due to the fact that the adults around us, did not want us to have those emotions. (I.e., when an abusing adult hits a child, they do not want that child to cry in physical and emotional pain, for that will remind the adult of their guilty conscience. So instead, abused children are often chastised and punished further for their emotional responses to the abuse and the abuser.) In order to heal the wounds of repressed emotion, and in order for access to unconscious thoughts, feelings, and belief systems to be allowed by the conscious mind, often feelings must be validated. This idea of validation is an important part of psychoanalysis, which has as its aim, access to unconscious thoughts, feelings, and belief systems, in order to liberate repressed emotions so that an individual can experience autonomy and, well, (dare I say it?) “freedom.”
Yet, in Buddhism, validation can be a problem. At least, for the devout Buddhist. For the devout Buddhist, the instructions are to see all things as unreal, lacking inherent existence, and totally impermanent. So when a feeling arises, such as hatred, don't think of it as real, ok? Think of it as a passing dream. Think of its' lack of inherent existence. Not quite the same as validation. Validation assumes the relevance of an origin. For instance, one might be feeling intense hatred for someone they do not know, and this may be because it is safer than feeling it toward someone in their family. If that is the case, than no matter how many times you see the emotion as unreal, and it dissolves in the space of awareness, it will return until its actual origin is validated.
Many will dispute this point. In fact, in the case of Buddhism, it is said that when one glimpses the actual full nature of reality, that everything falls away, and there is no self at all to reconcile. I may in fact actually believe this totally, and also practice meditation in order to increase my ability to see this nature. In terms of my habitual emotional patterns, however, seeing them as unreal, by either slogans, or the vipassana technique of breaking them down to their constituent parts and “loving” them “to death” with mindfulness, does not help me to understand why they arise again and again.
The truth is, there is no value necessarily in this kind of understanding of the past and how it relates to the present. Except for the fact that it aids in deeply healing wounds which we may not even know we carry, but which contain within them psychic pain that may be so profound that they have crippling effects in our daily life. I for one do not want to wait around for total and complete enlightenment (and/or death) to experience freedom. By validating emotions that my mind believes are wrong and must be subjugated to other, lesser experiences, I may in fact heal primary relationships in my life, unburden myself from fears of being myself, and allow access to my own unconscious mind to be more fluid and open. This may in fact help my ability to meditate more effectively and accurately.
But then, I will have to reconcile the conflicts that psychoanalysis has with traditions such as Buddhism. I will have to recognize and acknowledge the value in relating deeply with my emotional life as something very real. I will have to trust that the ultimate non-dual awareness will neither go away nor be offended by this. This may sound silly but perhaps you would be surprised to know the great resistance to this kind of talk about emotions within Buddhist circles.
It is interesting that Buddhism actually shies away from this type of relationship with the emotional life. In general, the tradition views this type of psychological work as being a reification of the false idea of self. One wonders if this avoidance of the relative experience on the part of buddhism is in fact a fear of the unconscious mind, the mind fearing itself, another manifestation of the self-preservation of the ego at work, and thus a vicious circle for the devout buddhist. For surely an avoidance of the relative experience of the reality of the emotional life is nothing to fear, but only, especially if empty, another vehicle to the great awakening to true non-duality?
I guess if I have a point, it would be to say that I do not think it is enough that modern Western Buddhist teachers make the grand and gracious gesture of endorsing medication and therapy “where it is useful” which many have, in fact. This is a great and important step for Western and hopefully Eastern Buddhism. However, where is psychoanalysis in all this? Where is the trip to the unconscious mind through misplaced emotional experiences? Most importantly, where is the acknowledgment of the most important thing that psychoanalysis has to offer? That is, while looking deeply at links to the unconscious through dreams, associations, and psychological patterns, that we have with us a compassionate witness who acts as a true parental figure who allows us to overcome the training we may have experienced to avoid the emotional reactions that may have been uncomfortable for the authority figures in our childhood?
Part of the problem is that Buddhism includes the possibility of reincarnation, insists upon it, in fact. This puts a chink in trusting analysis that concludes definitively that anything in the present is the absolute result of the past within this lifetime. In fact, it is said within the tradition that “only a fully enlightened Buddha can see karma” which rules out all possibility of truly “knowing” anything about the origins of the present. I can get behind this. But to throw out the brilliang conclusion that when the body and mind actually remember something that relates directly to the present, and through this remembering in the presence of a non-judgemental, validating figure, this emotional distress can actually deeply heal, would be not just a shame. It would be suspicious. It would be suspiciously another “poisenous pedagogy.” In other words, it would call into question the reason for dismissing such deeply felt truths.
If one sees Buddhism as a religion (and now I am really committing blasphemy) then one cannot rule out the possibility that it has an authoritarian element. Authoritarian elements must in order to survive, use their pedagogy to reify their own authority. In other words, does the dogma of reincarnation purposely rule out the possibility of the empowerment of individual and unique realizations of freedom? To some this may seem a leap. But lets take another look.
In psychoanalysis the trip into the unconscious does lead to an understanding of one's own development, and the reality of unconscious defense mechanisms built in the past, due to the fear of authority. (This fear of authority is not the ultimate end, for the abuse, whether large or small is viewed by a child as the loss of love, and so it is the loss of love, or abandonment that is feared, not the authority itself, except in cases of extreme abuse, and even then, this is up for debate). In any case, when this fear is removed, by the understanding in the adult that they can in fact experience freely the emotions they may not have been allowed to feel freely as children, their fear of abandonment by others is lessened. This is due to the trade off. When the self learns about the freedom that ensues from expressing oneself without reservation, there is no comparison, and the fear is slowly let go of. This “freedom” is something that Buddhism does not speak of. However, is it not linked to the ultimate freedom? I hear the chorus of “no” 's from the devout Buddhists. But hear me out.
In the story of Naropa, who is a learned scholar of Buddhists texts, he is visited by an old hag, a dakini, an enlightened woman. She tells him he understands the words of the texts, but he does not understand their true meaning. She tells him to go study with her brother, Tilopa, a true master. So Naropa does just this. He spends years with Tilopa as Tilopa humiliates him in every way imagineable. Naropa is stripped, as Chogyam Trungpa says in Illusion's Game, (his accessible book looking at the life of Naropa) from every aspect of his socialized self.
In this story there is revealed a truth that is seldom discussed by Buddhist practitioners. This truth is that the relative personality, in all of its detail, not only must be dealt with thoroughly and completely on the path, but is also who we are. It may not be who we are ultimately, but it is who we are relatively. And in this sense, there is nothing to fear from looking into our emotional experience as we interpret it. In fact, there is everything to gain. For without autonomy and knowledge of our unconscious mind, we cannot know real, true, freedom. We cannot be freed from things we do not understand. This would be impossible. And for Buddhism or any other religion to tell us that understanding ourselves is impossible, can only be a way to limit our experience of freedom. Why this limitation? Well, maybe Buddhism should look into its childhood....


Anonymous said...

After reading your post a couple times, I'm still not sure what *you* mean by freedom. Would it necessarily mean that your self was intact?

I need my self. It comes in handy at work, for example, so I know when to speak up on a conference call. It's also a storehouse for all those difficult triggers and emotions you talk about. So I look at it in another light and find it insubstantial, really just threads of thoughts bundled together in a way that seems continuous, and it becomes easier to leave the bourbon alone and do something with my time.

So I meant to ask you what freedom is and wound up talking about myself. Hope something in there was useful.

Dan Stanton said...

Your post is excellent. I haven't really had any contact with traditional Buddhists. I just try to learn on my own and "see with my own eyes."

Basically, though, your post made me realize that the way I have been dealing with emotions for a little while now (thinking "its not substantial; there's nothing to fear and nothing to desire in this emotion") is inadequate precisely because I believe that all emotions can be dealt with in this way at any level. Like you said, I might be able to deal with the emotion on the surface, but that's not going to loosen my deeper unconscious emotional attachments.

And still, I think what you've said here is closer to Buddhism than you give it credit for. Specifically, you've helped me to learn more about the "three poisons": desire, fear, and ignorance. For a little while, I've been handling the desire and fear associated with my emotions, but I was not, in any way, trying to get rid of ignorance about my emotions.

So, thank you!