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.
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!