Friday, 15 September 2017

Meditation Revisited: A Conception of Self

Living without hope can make people spiteful. Hate usually comes out of hurt.
The most significant and transformative element of my "spiritual practise" in recent years has been my meditation. For about the last seven years or so I've done mindfulness of breathing for an hour a day. A 20 minute meditation followed by a 40 minute meditation.

The meditation itself is nothing magical or mystical and is the basic meditation taught by the Buddha. It is an exercise of focus, being aware (mindful) of just the breath. In focusing on the breath, feeling just for the breath itself, you have to let go of all other distractions and trains of thought that compete in your mind for attention.

So when distractions arise you let them go and return to the breath, always returning focus to the breath. Once you've stilled the ceaseless chatter of the mind, the constant need to vocalise thoughts internally, the deeper things unwindind inside yourself also rise up and also need letting go of. I found this process so healing, some days memories and feelings would just flood out of me like a river. Instead of pushing away the painful memories and feelings, as I used to, I was no longer afraid of them and I let them come and go always trying to return to the breath. As I became less of afraid of what was locked away inside, and willing to let it out, I found that there was simply more of me around. I was less afraid of me and the result was becoming a bigger person.

The goal for mindfulness of breathing is to reach a state where you are totally relaxed but totally alert and focused. There comes a point where you have pushed away the distractions far enough that they don't come back (programmers call this state "being in the flow"). The Buddhists call this Dhyana (or Jhana) and it has been described as "stepping back into the garden of your mind". The few times it's happened to me I've suddenly noticed (usually itself enough to snap me out of it) that all I'm aware of is my breath and nothing else, and time appeared to have stopped. I have no idea how long I'd been like that, it could have been seconds or hours. Very beautiful. When your mind and body are this relaxed, and you're not pushing away or interfering with the workings of your soul (psyche) it is able to unwind and relax. Such a healthy thing.

So although the goal of mindfulness of breathing is practised focus, leading to mental strength, it is also the deliberate practise of the stilling of the soul. Extraordinarily restful, like settling down into a really deep and wordless think.

It's easy to see why it is useful, but to understand how it is useful can only really come through experience and can only be conceptualised as part of an understanding of the operation of the soul (mind). Understanding the effects of meditation requires us to understand ourselves better, and in meditation you feel the effects because you are consciously encountering yourself in it! So the teaching of Buddhism is not really about metaphysics (what is the soul, the nature of self, and everything else) but is about a practical path for working that out for yourself through seeing it.

So my understanding of myself, my understanding of what self is, comes through my own encounters with myself and what is inside - what stuff am I made of and how does it work - in meditation.

The key insight, not itself a novel idea to us now since the work of Freud and Jung, is that most of who we are is submerged beneath our normal conscious understanding. The only reason this is true is that our brains are so busy and we never get quiet enough to really feel what's happening inside. So the reality of who we are is mostly subconscious behaviour and habits. The conscious, rational and thinking part of us that so likes to think it is in charge is only a very small part of us.

So if we're responsible for ourselves and responsible for who we are, then just working on and with the rational part of us (the part we often identify as "us", the ego, the conception of self and the outside world) is not sufficient. Instead we must actually change, be transformed, and the path to doing this is deliberately cultivating skillful habits of goodness. Anything we do habitually becomes a habit, becomes part of our unconscious self. We can train ourselves, in everything we do, to be good. As we do that we become actually good, that's the stuff we become made of.

A real understanding of self, a conceptualisation of how our souls actually work and what it means to be healed and whole yet still experience pain, is difficult. The only real way to get there is to unwind enough of yourself so you can really see yourself. Then you recognise the same things, acted on by different circumstances so with a different result, in other people. You can see how we're all the same, but all different. Different expressions of different aspects of life.

I also sometimes do a variant of a Zen Buddhist meditation called "zazen", which means "just sitting". The most important part here is the "just". Not sitting and thinking, just sitting. I first encountered this meditation through a Christian book called "The Other Side of Silence", an interesting if over-fanciful book. In totally stilling the mind the deeper things are free to rise. This is a harder meditation to do than mindfulness, I was only able to do it at all after several months of mindfulness, but at times I have found it even more rewarding.

Meditation has been invaluable in enabling me to experience my self directly, and therefore makes it possible for me to understand myself. As our psyche is formed through interaction with the outside world our understanding of the world, the effects of our experience of the world, are closely bound up with self - with who we really are (rather than who we imagine ourselves to be). So our capacity to understand life is inextricably linked with our ability to understand our self.

Understanding myself as the result of, largely unconscious but still me, processes makes me less worried about how to change my behaviour and become something better - the best me I can be. I am what I am, my current behaviour is the outspring of everything that has happened to me and everything I am. As I become more reconciled to who I am, less of me is hidden and inaccessible, then I am more able to change. In as much as I am able, and in as much as it is possible, I will be truly good. Just because it's the most fun thing I can imagine and the most complete way of living.

If who we are is a psyche shaped by our experiences and character, and how we see ourselves and the world around us largely comes from those around us in our formative years - the psyches that we learned from and that shaped us, then the dominant "stories of our culture" will have had a formative role. Our collective stories are a visceral, beyond the conscious, way we communicate how we really see the world. How we think we see the world, how we want to see the world, and how we actually see the world on an unconscious level can be very different. Mythological stories, our creation myths for example, have a life independent of any individual. A collective life if you like. They form the backdrop of our culture and affect you, have life within you, however you rationally and consciously treat these stories. As part of our shared reality they are part of what has shaped us. So really understanding ourselves and where we come from also involves understanding and unpicking the stories of our culture. This is the role of myth, it forms and shapes a deeper (unconscious) part of who we are and is therefore communicated and expressed in who we are and what we do. So understanding ourselves requires understanding the role and reality (psychologically) of myth. As an abstraction for some of the deeper influences that shape us it becomes a deeper way of thinking. A way of visualising and interacting with (in the abstract) the cumulative effects of society on the individual, and vice-versa.

This is why Jung concluded that the solution to most psychological problems is a reconnection to the religious. (I would rather say spiritual than religious as the word has terrible problems.) Only through connecting, in some way, with the deeper aspects of what formed us - and therefore who we are - are we able to understand ourself and resolve the more fundamental difficulties of life.

"The psychological chasm between external and internal reality is an illusion created by our minds trying to understand the world."

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