Tag Archives: psychology

Meditation: Setting an Intention

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This isn’t a meditation in and of itself, but should be a process that you go through every single time you sit down on the meditation cushion. Setting an intention isn’t just one of the most important parts of meditation practice, it’s also one of the most important parts of living a successful and meaningful life. Before you embark on any endeavor, you should examine your motivation and set an intention that you believe truly accords with this motivation. If you aren’t satisfied with your motivation, then make a conscious effort to change it so that you can direct your energies towards your goal as directly as possible.

Setting a proper motivation before practicing meditation is important because otherwise you’re just playing a mind game with yourself. Actual meditation requires a tremendous amount of focus and discipline to keep from wandering into the comfort of dullness, so setting a sufficiently strong motivation that truly accords with your inner motivation is necessary to engage with your practice as fully as possible. Otherwise, it’s easy to allow yourself to be led off into distractions. Your motivation should form the heart and soul of your practice, giving you that energy to persevere through difficult sessions and keeping you constantly striving towards deeper levels of insight.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your motivation. This is not as simple as it sounds. As with all things, there is very rarely a single motivation for engaging in meditation, but rather a complex web of reasons that bring you to the cushion. In psychological terms, this is called the principle of multiple determination. Spend some time analyzing exactly what it is you’re hoping to accomplish through practicing meditation and why this is the case. Who are you meditating for? Before any of my meditation sessions with Tibetan Buddhists, they always encourage the group to set the motivation to strive to achieve wisdom for the sake of helping lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. This is a beautiful intention for serous practitioners, but it is often unrealistic for the average layperson. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is your motivation, but unless you really embody that feeling in your practice, it’s an empty intention. There’s no shame in setting your intention a bit lower. Again, be honest with yourself! If you try and fool yourself into thinking that you’re motivated by something loftier than you truly are, it will hardly add any weight to your practice. In fact, if you set a motivation that is too high and then become aware that you aren’t actually energized by it, you might fall into a state of guilt, which is entirely unproductive for practice.

That being said, not all motivations are good. It is possible to have an unhealthy motivation for meditation. Below, I list 10 forms of unhealthy intention that are often problematic for Western practitioners, though they are hardly limited to those in the West and there are many more forms of unhealthy motivation than I list here.

1) Quest for perfection and invulnerability. This is not what meditation is for. This type of motivation is most often guided by a feeling of narcissism, a desire to be self-sufficient, and to rise above ‘worldly concerns.’
2) Fear of individuation. This form of unhealthy motivation is guided by a fear of taking responsibility for one’s own life in the belief that this can be avoided by a defensive pursuit of ‘egolessness.’
3) Avoidance of responsibility and accountability. Freedom from ‘egocentric needs’ can rationalize avoidance of anxiety-producing situations (i.e. taking charge of life), causing one to retreat into meditation.
4) Fear of intimacy and closeness. Retreat into the idea of ‘no-self’ can appear to provide a way of neutralizing hurt by avoiding close relationships.
5) A substitute for grief and mourning. Similar to #4, the idea of ‘no-self’ can provide a refuge from painful emotions if misinterpreted.
6) Avoidance of feelings. This type of unhealthy motivation is guided by the belief that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of non-feeling, rather than becoming better attuned to our feelings.
7) Passivity and dependence. ‘Egolessness’ can masquerade as a way of causing one to suppress their feelings of anger and self-assertion, as well as to disguise codependency as compassionate service to a loved one
8) Self-punitive guilt. This entails using the idea of ‘non-attachment’ to act out underlying feelings of unworthiness and guilt (“Feelings are bad and therefore I’m bad for having them.”)
9) Devaluing reason and intellect. Belief in the idea that meditation solely promotes experience over rational thinking can reinforce avoidance of thinking as a way of blocking self-understanding.
10) Escape from intrapsychic experience. Similar to #4 and #5, this involves attempting to ‘let go of the ego’ as justification for repressing anything that produces anxiety or insecurity.

Notice that in many of the examples above, I place Buddhist terms in quotation marks. This is to highlight the fact that they refer not to the true Buddhist concept, but a misconception of it twisted to fit the psychological needs of the individual. All of these forms of unhealthy motivation reveal a misunderstanding of what meditation is designed to accomplish and, as such, cause the practitioner to engage in practice for the wrong reasons. It is important to examine our reasons for practicing so that we don’t fall into any of the pitfalls listed above. If your practice has previously been guided by one of these motivations, that’s okay. In order to change your motivation to something more healthy, you first need to recognize that your previous intention was misguided and not giving all the strength to meditate that you’re truly capable of mustering.

As time goes on, it’s inevitable that your meditations will change. Even day to day, your meditation is likely to be guided by different intentions. What is most important is to be aware of these various motivations and, whenever possible, to set an intention that you can truly believe in. It is only through setting a healthy motivation that you can fully get behind that you can dive as deeply as possible into practice and your own mind.

Letting Go of Our Sad Stories

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For most of us, freedom feels not only unfamiliar, but distinctly unpleasant. That’s because we’re used to our chains. They might chafe, they might make us bleed, but at least they’re familiar.
-Mingyur Rinpoche

Have you ever sat around with friends to show off scars and compare stories about broken bones? (Maybe this is a guy thing. If not, sorry for being gender normative.) I don’t think it’s uncommon for kids to pass the time by boasting about how they received this or that injury. In most cases, the grizzlier the injury, the better the story. Although the experience of acquiring the injury may be quite painful, sharing the story of that experience is often quite the opposite. For many, it’s a point of pride, something to brag about and show off. It’s a way of showing some of the difficulties we’ve been through and conquered.
I only have 2 substantial scars, neither of them coming from injuries that were especially serious (though they’re still badass.) But I love my scars. I love my sad stories. In a weird way, I love my suffering. And, in the words of Rinpoche-la, I also love my chains.
This might sound totally paradoxical. Surely we all want to be happy, to be satisfied, to be free from suffering. So why do we often take so much pride in the experiences that were the exact opposite?

The greatest danger to self-realization is self-doubt. If we’re actively working to undermine ourselves, the battle is already lost regardless of external factors. Self-doubt seizes on all of our sad stories, all of our problems, all of our sufferings, all of our excuses for not changing. Because changing is hard. Holding onto our sob stories and perceived shortcomings is easy. It’s extremely comfortable to take refuge in our sufferings  We have invested so much in our sad stories and self-pity that the idea of letting them go is extraordinarily painful. Even just thinking about letting go automatically raises serious resistance. These things define us. Think about why many people are so proud of their scars. They are physical evidence of hardships that we have had to endure. They are an outward manifestation of an experience that we believe has contributed to our character. In many ways, we are our scars and our sad stories. How could we possibly let them go?

Holding onto them, on the other hand, requires no work whatsoever and, in many cases, it even garners support from others in the form of pity. People will often support this kind of self-doubting, self-pitying behavior if it doesn’t go too far, encouraging each other to just ‘let it out’ or even go so far as to applauding someone for being brave enough to address their personal issues.

Taking refuge in suffering also feels strangely productive. It only requires a small amount of courage to look at what makes us suffer. Maybe we don’t penetrate down to the deepest causes of suffering, but it usually isn’t so difficult to get a glimpse at what causes us pain. It can often be extremely satisfying to look at what makes us suffer and be able to identify the causes.

Trouble is that this doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Just identifying the things that make us suffer very rarely causes them to just disappear. But because this task of identification can feel so immediately rewarding it also lures us into a false sense of complacency: because I know what’s wrong, I can figure out how to fix it. But knowing how to fix something doesn’t amount to actually taking the effort to fix it.

This is symptomatic of a deeper issue that I personally struggle with, and, based on conversations I’ve had with other practitioners, I believe it’s fairly common, not only to people practicing meditation, but as a general human issue. In Freudian terms, the issue is repetition compulsion: we want to change but simultaneously exert tremendous amounts of energy to keep everything exactly the same. Identifying our own psychological problems without actually doing anything about them fits perfectly into this framework. By recognizing our issues, it can appear that we are taking a big step towards changing ourselves, but, in reality, it isn’t actually moving in any direction at all. It feels like we’re changing but without exerting hardly any effort, which is why it’s so seductive and such an easy place to get caught up.

During the early stages of practicing meditation it’s common for practitioners to notice that they have a far deeper and clearer awareness of their thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, this can be somewhat terrifying. Early on, spiritual experience may actually exacerbate psychological and functional difficulties by bringing things to light that we aren’t immediately prepared to deal with.
On the other hand, this deeper insight into ourselves is incredibly exciting. By seeing our mental states so much more clearly it feels as if we’re making some sort of serious progress in remedying our issues. This is such a convincing view that it becomes very easy to get caught up at this stage of meditation without even realizing that we’ve gotten stuck.

The issue lies in becoming concerned with the content of our minds when we should be examining the processes. It’s an issue that I find myself facing very regularly when I sit down on my cushion. As Westerners, we’ve been habituated to the idea that there is something inherently beautiful about the sense of individuality that we each possess, and our thoughts and feelings are intimately related to this sense of individuality. It is easy to be lured in by the prospect of becoming more intimate with ourselves through meditation, though this is really just a diversion from the traditionally established stages of practice.

Additionally, over the past couple hundred years, especially since Freud, there has been a strong trend in Western society of using therapy centered around addressing and working through our psychological concerns. For many Western practitioners, this need to address and analyze the various components of our psyche as used by psychology has merely been given new clothing in the form of meditation. Rather than using meditation as a tool for analyzing the processes of the mind, it has become a method of analyzing the specific content. However, this is a complete misuse of the attentiveness developed through practice. As we become more familiar with our internal states, it can be very easy to grasp onto them and feel like we’re doing some sort of important inner work when, in reality, all we’re doing is hunkering down deeper into our sense of independence, individuality, and selfhood.

Psychological therapy is designed to help us live more comfortably with the various facets of ourselves by increasing the flexibility and realism of our self-representations; meditation seeks to annihilate the idea that our selves have any true existence, ultimately doing away with the true reality of self-representations entirely. This is because self-representations can be dangerous, no matter how helpful they may seem to be. There is a certain functional utility to them, but they prevent us from seeing reality as it really is by filtering all experience of ourselves through subtle, fixed lenses. Psychology aims to help us change our self-representations. Buddhism helps us to stop identifying with them at all. In this sense, getting rid of the idea of a true self entails giving up automatic, reactive, inflexible identification with and attachment to our self-representations.

There is a strong argument to be made that the idea of a true self cannot be rid of until the conventional self is well adjusted and functional. Reducing emotional problems in the short term can lead to clearer, more productive meditative practice in the long run. However, there are 2 serious problems with this approach. One, while psychological issues may arise during time spent on the meditation cushion, it is unlikely that that is the best place to deal with them if one is serious about actually meditating. Two, actively shifting the focus of meditation to dealing with emotional difficulties increases the likelihood that the greater, transcendent goal of self-realization will be completely abandoned. However, this is a far larger topic than I’m attempting to address here. I’m merely trying to point out that meditation is very frequently being assimilated into classical Western schemas to the disadvantage of both the practice and the practitioner. Rather than using meditation as it was practiced in India, Tibet, China, etc. for thousands of years, it has become warped into a tool to meet our perceived psychological needs.

Returning to the idea of loving our sad stories, it is very commonly the case that we use these tragic narratives to define who we are as a person. We may profess to hate them, to wish we could be rid of them forever, but, at the end of the day, many of us still cling to them because they help us understand who we are and there are few things more enticing than self-knowledge. After all, that’s why many people pick up meditation in the first place.

The issue with this is that our sad stories aren’t who we truly are. Again, this notion is a product of getting caught up in the content of what arises during meditation, rather than the processes that bring these things to the surface. If we’re able to look pass the content, we can see that the content is actually always changing. Over the course of a 15-minute meditation session it’s possible to experience dozens of emotions, yet it’s all happening entirely within our own heads. None of it is stable. None of it is inherently existent. It’s all a matter of perspective, but if that perspective hinges itself on our sob stories then it’s almost impossible to move forward.

Turning to my own personal experience, I’ve found that I often run into the following issue while meditating. A negative thought will arise. I’ll let it drift by. I’ll find myself sinking into a deeper state of clarity about what’s going on in my mind, which makes me feel good. Then, as a sort of test to myself, I’ll actively recall the negative thought to see how I receive it now that I’ve reached a more settled state and to see if I can work with it. I like to tell myself this is productive but, if I really look at what I’m doing, I’m simply fixating on my sad story by actively pulling it back into my mental field when I’ve already let it go. Even once these negative states of mind have come and gone, I feel the need to grasp out for them again and bring them back. This comes back to the problem of misusing meditation as a tool of conducting auto-therapy rather than letting the practice simply be what it is. Recalling and delving into negative emotions once they’ve already passed isn’t really a way of testing myself; it’s an attempt to transform them into something else rather than letting them exist comfortably as what they are.

In my next post I’ll provide a meditative practice for specifically dealing with these kinds of issues. Stay tuned!

Jungian Alchemical Vajrayana Buddhism

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“With a truly tragic delusion, theologians fail to see that it is not a matter of proving the existence of the light, but of blind people who do not know that their eyes could see. It is high time we realize that it is pointless to praise the light and preach it is nobody can see it. It is much more needful to teach people the art of seeing. For it is obvious that far too many people are incapable of establishing a connection between the sacred figures and their own psyche; they cannot see to what extent the equivalent images are lying dormant in their own unconscious.”–C.G. Jung

Sitting on the roof in an absolutely incredible wind storm. Looks like monsoon season is here. Everything seems to be coming together in bits and pieces, catching glimpses at the unus mundi. After Friday’s remarkably disappointing showing at the Dalai Lama’s talk, I took Saturday off (with permission) to reset and recharge before the two-week sprint to the end of the program. I spent a couple hours at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, intending on doing research for my project, but ended up mainly reading up on Tantrism. The more I read, the more apparent it becomes that Tibetan Buddhism is really only partially Buddhism, with a tremendous amount of syncretism with Shaivite Tantrism and Bon, Tibet’s animistic shamanistic tradition.

After my time at the library, I was thinking a lot about Jung’s ideas and their remarkable similarities to Tantric Buddhism. After lunch, I broke from the small group I’d been in to go wandering and came across a small book store. I walked in and synchronistically immediately sighted ‘The Essence of Jung’s Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism.” It was a bit more pricey than I would have liked (600 Rs~$12) but felt absolutely obliged to pick it up.

The book begins with a brief introduction into Tibetan Buddhism, with a focus on Tantrism/Vajrayana (The Indestructible Path.) The practice largely deals with the weaving of opposites and the dissolution of duality, cultivating an understanding of the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the cosmos. By tapping into our own prana (vital energies,) we can gain access to those same dynamic forces that propel the universe. Key to this practice is the union and transcendence of opposites, chiefly that of male and female, representing method and wisdom. Western analysis often stops at this point, presenting Tantrism as solely focused on eroticism, but the unity of male and female is only a small part of the picture. The product of this union is bliss, nirvana, enlightenment, transcendence- the tertium quid of primordial unity.

The book than turns to a consideration of C.G. Jung and his eerily similar insights. He unknowingly forged through a lifelong experience of Tantrism, encountering the dark depths of his unconscious after his falling out with Freud, leading to an experience which many would consider to be a psychotic break. From the Western pathologizing view, it probably would be safe to say that he went insane: plummeting from the security of the rational, self-contained Self into the unknown depths of man’s primordial nature. It was at this time that he came to see the centrality of the Self, both as the origin of his madness and its ultimate goal, coming to realize that it is the archetype of orientation and meaning. This Self is not the ego as we consciously identify it, but the platform on which man’s dual natures, spiritual and mundane, can be integrated. The ego, on the other hand, is the “I”-centered being that grasps for the mundane, often resisting or even denying the existence of the unconscious.

Through Jung’s encounter with this Self, he also came to discover the collective unconscious, our psychological instincts that we owe to heredity rather than personal experiences. It lies within all of us, brimming with endless archetypes of man’s basest emotions and common experiences, just waiting to manifest in the appropriate (and oft-seeming inappropriate) context. These are not inherited ideas, but predispositions and propensities in the human psyche that activity based on one’s cultural environment and particular circumstances. As noted earlier, the Self is the guiding and uniting force behind the archetypes. The Self is the unifier of opposites, holding both man’s individual nature and his collective, and what might be considered divine, aspect.

Through the process of individuation, the Self seeks to unite these poles. This occurs in all of us, whether unconsciously or consciously, and the intention makes all the difference, leading either to the endless void of suffering and madness or an existence permeated with life as the human Godhead.

Jung also found these common themes running through Medieval and Chinese alchemy. While the practices may have been said to be explicitly working with properties of matter, there is also a deeper psychological work undertaken by the alchemist. Turning metal into gold represents man’s transformation from instinctual animal to divine being, and the elixir of life is a state of consciousness that exists beyond time and space. Within this practice too, the union of opposites is central. The primary poles are consciousness and the unconscious, represented by Sol and Luna, the masculine and the feminine, sulfur and salt. This union occurs through the presence of a third element: Mercurius, its title drawn from the liminal figure of Mercury in Roman mythology:

“He is one of seven and the first among them; and though he is now all things, at first he was only one. In him are the four elements, yet he is not an element. He is a spirit, yet he has a body; a man, yet her performs a woman’s part; a boy, yet he bears a man’s weapons; a beast, yet he has the wings of a bird. He is poison, yet he cures leprosy; life, yet he kills all things; a King, yet another occupies his throne; he flees from the fire, yet fire is taken from him; he is water, yet he does not wet the hands; he is earth, yet is sown; he is air and lives by water.” ( Metzner, Maps of Consciousness)

Here we find Jung’s, and all of our, Self. He is also the individuation process and the entirety of the collective unconscious, the totality of it all: the unus mundi. However, it seems that this Self (and this is my conclusion, not Jung’s) doesn’t really exist in the Buddhist sense of nonexistence, meaning that it has no inherent existence in itself. It serves as a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious, a conduit between the material and the immaterial. We spend so much time bridging this divide between the two realms that we identify ourselves as the bridge, rather than recognizing that we/it have no identity at all beyond the poles that are united.

In Tantrism, this idea of the Self as conduit between the immaterial and the material can be seen through the invocation of various deities. Rather than acting as actual divine beings, these figures could be thought to represent the primordial energies within the Self. By calling them forth and identifying their existence within the collective unconscious within oneself, one can be healed of the afflictions that denial of that aspect might cause. It is only by coming into contact with these elements that we can ultimately come to terms with them and coexist alongside them. This parallels Jung’s idea of recognizing and integrating the shadow, the negative aspect of oneself. In doing so, one becomes a more fully developed and psychological mature person.

A couple days ago I had the thought that I might want to pick up econ again to some degree, but it’s become clear that now is not the time. This book and talking with one of the other students on the program about the arduous but fulfilling process of creating a new major has gotten me inspired. I need to get serious about making a psychology of religion major. When I first decided to veer away from econ and considered making my own major, I met with nearly every psych professor in Pomona’s department. I mentioned that I was thinking of starting with the works of William James, Jung and Freud and was unanimously shot down, told that those authors aren’t ‘scientific’ and aren’t worth my time. And I listened for awhile, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’ve clearly tapped into something real. As I was reading today I remembered my fascination with Hillman’s idea of the monotheism of consciousness and am realizing that this thing goes deep. Certainly deep enough to get an undergraduate degree out of it.

If I’ve learned anything from this program it’s that, while logic and reason are tremendously valuable tools, scientific materialism and empiricism aren’t the only viable methods of discovery and certainly shouldn’t be lauded as the unequivocally best. They’ve no doubt helped countless numbers of people but there’s more to reality and the psyche than what can be objectively examined in the lab. I’m sure all the psych teachers I talked to had the best intentions and thought they were right as far as they could see, but I just don’t think they see the whole picture. I certainly don’t think I see it all either, but at least I recognize that what I’m seeing is only a slice of it something larger. While trying to make my own major may not be the easiest path, it increasingly seems that it would be worth the trouble and is almost necessary. Not only is this stuff downright fascinating to me, but it could also be damn useful. Psychotherapy has a bad wrap, but I think it has a lot to learn from religion and I would love to help find a way to bridge the gap.

For Jung, the process of healing and expanding the self mirrors the individuation of the Self, albeit performed consciously and with a guide. This isn’t a practice solely intended for those identified as “mentally ill” (a concept which is really a tremendous disservice to anyone unfortunate to be designated as such): it’s for anyone who wishes to develop their personality more fully and find a broader perspective of life. The role of the therapist as guide is key to this process. He must become deeply engaged with the patient (I don’t really like this word but seems to be the best I can do at this point) and even a part of their experience. This is no place for concepts and labels, which only serve to separate the patient from the guide. And as Jung says himself, “The spirit does not dwell in concepts.”

To cure the spirit of its suffering, one must become engaged with it and venture into its depths to discover its nature. While this may seem to some to be an egocentric process of Self-discovery, the wisdom that is found at the core of the Self is that we are all the same at the most basic level, dwelling in the collective unconscious. From this wisdom, compassion spontaneously arises, a desire to help all beings merge their oppositions and realize their dual nature. Wisdom and compassion are really just two sides of the same coin.

The similarities to Buddhism are absolutely uncanny, from the focused exploration of the self with the help of a guru, to the alleviation of suffering and cultivation of wisdom and compassion. This is not a journey that can be universally expounded upon in texts, but one of Self-discovery and experience, guided onward by the guru’s skillful means and leading towards the wholeness of understanding and experience that we all desire:

“What makes a man blessed is not belief (in the sense of the acceptance of a definite dogma), but the becoming conscious of reality, which latter is metaphysics to us only for as long as we have not experienced it…viewed from without (as a system) Buddhism is metaphysics; viewed from within (as a form of reality) it is empiricism. In so far as ‘the metaphysical’ is disclosed upon the path of inner experience, it was not rejected by the Buddha, it was only rejected when it was thought out upon the path of speculation. Metaphysics is an entirely relative concept, whose boundaries depend upon the respective plane of experience, upon the respective form and extent of consciousness. Buddha overcame metaphysics and its problems, not by merely ignoring them, but in an absolute positive manner, in that, through training and extension of consciousness he pushed back the boundary lines of the latter, so that the metaphysical became the empirical.” ( Lama Govinda)

Through the presence of an outer guru, the student (not the patient!) comes to learn that what is being taught is already within oneself. The outer teacher is really just the archetypical guru, the Buddha-nature, one’s own inner guide.

Quite fittingly, Jung was fascinated by the Bardo Todol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text focuses on the liminal space of the bardo between death and rebirth, the moment in which consciousness is bathed in Pure Light. It is at this moment that the mind may either transcend beyond this reality or descend back into samsara, as is so often the case. Jung advises that we read the Bardo Todol backwards, as an emergence from the darkness of the unconscious/samsara to the Pure Light of expanded awareness. Trongpa Rinpoche offers an alternative psychological reading, viewing each of the six realms of samsaric existence as corresponding to man’s various psychological states:

Hell: Self-destructive anger
Hungry Ghosts realm: insatiable hunger for possessions
Animal realm: security and comfort, predictable with no mystery
Human realm: passion, unending pursuit of sensual pleasure and wealth
Jealous Gods realm: paranoia
Gods realm: Pride and narcissism, intoxication with the ego

Since this was all really a stream of conscious (unconscious?) type post, I don’t really have a nice way to tie a bow on it at the end. Maybe with yet another quote from Jung?

“We imagine we have left such phantoms of gods far behind. But what we have outgrown are only the words-ghosts, not the psychic facts which were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as possessed by our autonomous psychic contents as if they were gods. Today they are called phobias, compulsions, and so forth, or in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus, but the solar plexus, and creates specimens for the physicians consulting room, or disturbs the brain of the politicians and journalists who then unwittingly unleash mental epidemics.”

No matter where I start, it always seems to come back to the same place…