There are traditional religious techniques for engaging the unconscious and coming to an awareness of our essential human being. They are all “early” devices in the learning curve of history. The state-of-the-art technique for spiritual learning is something I would call “therapeutic mindfulness accompanied by a highly-developed inner body sense.”
Spiritual learning is mainly about pacifying your “demons”. Once you pacify your demons, everything becomes clear. “When you realize that everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, then you become very strong and your existence becomes very meaningful.” (Shunryu Suzuki)
But it can be hard to get started. When the ego is weak, it is easily overwhelmed by the forces of the unconscious. Hence Paul Valéry’s comment that, “If you want to go down into the self, you’d better go armed to the teeth.”
That is why traditional religion devised its trance induction techniques: to access the unconscious safely. They were appropriate technology for a thousand years ago, but now they have become addictions.
From recent trauma studies we have learned that “armed to the teeth” simply means armed with certain specific skills, principally a well-developed “inner body sense”, which is able to detect the earliest onset of re-enacting trauma. Once you can detect the onset, you can control the memory, and gradually allow yourself to complete the defense mechanism that was overwhelmed when you were very young and very small. In trauma treatment we have learned that we can access anything inside ourselves as long as we do it slowly enough.
So, the watchword now is to relax and be observant. It is not necessary to be ambitious. Exert no pressure. We do not have to “do” anything. The unconscious yields up its secrets easily if only it is permitted to be voluntary.
There are some spiritual systems that understand this. There is a meeting today between very old spiritual technologies and very new ones. Sufism and Buddhism harmomize with psychotherapy. The thirteenth century Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Rumi could easily say that “The cure for pain is in the pain.” But he was a very unusual personality. For most people, engaging one’s demons takes guidance in starting slowly and proceeding step by step.
Sleeping Vs. Waking
Just noticing the difference between being awake and being in trance is step one. This is a bit tricky, even though it is very elementary because culture’s default setting for introspection is escape. Culture typically supports habitual trance, and so awareness of the difference between waking and sleeping is not automatic.
However, once you get the difference, you are ready to grasp the fact that you have a choice. And it is not the point never to go into trance, but simply to be aware of when you are awake and when you are asleep. Then you also learn how useful it is to make your home in the waking state. When you have a satisfying or disturbing trance experience, you “return to the body” and find grounding there. Of course, there is the problem that emotional pain stored in the body can make trance-states very attractive. In fact, escapist trances for people who have a lot of pain stored in their bodies are the foundations of cults and other totalitarianisms.
The Thirst for Interiority
When one is making progress with being awake and being asleep and beginning to enjoy wakefulness, there comes a time when the sedatives of conventional society no longer feel good. Ritual, organ music, the pious hymnody, orchestrated entrancements all become mild irritations that interfere with the texture of consciousness. This distaste is a response of the deepest part of the psyche. It is therefore quintessentially “spiritual”, and is exercised in respect to all sedating technologies. The psyche in this condition cannot stand being put to sleep — unless of course it is for some clearly-defined and specific purpose in therapy — because this gets in the way of its path to wholeness. This discomfort with sleepiness occurs when the woundedness created by harsh child-rearing practices is reduced enough to permit a positive disposition towards going inside. What awakens at this moment is the appetite for interiority.
This appetite understands Rumi: “The cure for pain is in the pain.” Now, I have seen people visibly recoil when I cite this saying of Rumi. I have seen the expressions on their faces turn from receptivity to anger. This is testimony to the normal level of pain in society today, and the power of the default setting of escape. Merely to mention an alternative violates a taboo.
But there must be some reason why we are still reading Rumi’s works six hundred years after he died. If the comment about the source of pain is accurate, then it is of inestimable value, because it gives the actual solution to the problem. If you look for the source of pain where it isn’t, then you will not cure the pain. Your only recourse will be more and more sedatives. You are stuck with the constant deadening of your sensibilities, and the prospect of living a less and less full life. But if you look for the source of your pain where it is, ah, then a whole new range of opportunities opens up for you.
but there’s only one search: Wandering
this world is wandering that, both inside one
transparent sky. In here
there is no dogma and no heresy.
The miracle of Jesus is himself, not what he said or did
about the future. Forget the future.
I’d worship someone who could do that!
On the way you may want to look back, or not,
but if you can say There’s nothing ahead,
there will be nothing there.
Stretch you arms and take hold the cloth of your clothes
with both hands. The cure for pain is in the pain.
Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both,
you don’t belong with us.
When one of us gets lost, is not here, he must be inside us.
There’s no place like that anywhere in the world.
The thirst for interiority can be produced by the lucky accident of exceptional childhood experience, by unusual individual talent, by psychotherapy, or by fortunate experiences of personal success such as continuous material security, getting a good education, social approval, or by any one of these or by all of them together.
A device that the Buddhists use is the sutra. A sutra is a statement of spiritual principle that the practitioners memorize and then chant, usually daily. It contains introspective truths that a master will then use as a basis for commentary and other guidance of the learners. A popular sutra in use today is the work of a first century teacher called Avalokitesvara. It is called “The Heart Sutra”. It is readily available in numerous commentaries, and there are many translations on the Internet.
The Heart Sutra
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when deeply practicing Perfect Understanding perceives that all five skandhas are empty and is saved from all suffering and distress.
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness is form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, do not increase or decrease. Therefore, in emptiness no form, no feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind, no realm of eyes, and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness. No ignorance and also no extinction of it, and so forth until no old age and death and also no extinction of them. No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.
The Bodhisattva depends on Perfect Understanding and the mind is no hindrance; without any hindrance no fears exist. Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in Desirelessness.
In the three worlds all Buddhas depend on Perfect Understanding and attain enlightenment.
Therefore, know that Perfect Understanding is the great transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra, which is able to relieve all suffering and is true, not false. So proclaim the Perfection of Understanding mantra, proclaim the mantra that says:
Arrived, arrived, completely arrived, everyone arrived at enlightenment, yes!
Notice that the center of the sutra is about fear. And this is enough to begin the exploration of self.
If the fear of going inside seems to be persistent and sticky, then don’t do it. Temporize, be oblique. Just play around with the idea. Read a book by just about any contemporary Buddhist, or have a casual conversation with a friend. The cultivation of interiority is so much a social movement these days that it is not hard to find some one who just casually and in the normal course of their lives has tried some form of meditation or other introspective practice.
The Teaching-Learning Relationship
There are different teaching-learning relationships in the two phases of spiritual growth. In the earlier phase– of the weak ego — the relationship is one of parent to child. It is characterized by the transference of the learner, as the primary need is to complete the unfulfilled needs created by the lack of nurture in child-rearing practices. In this relationship the parent dictates behavior and provides reality orientation. It performs the functions of the ego for the weak ego of the learner. This is the “Our-Holy-Mother-the-Church-and-Our-Holy-Father-the-Pope” system.
In the later phase– of the healthy ego — the relationship is between equals, between two adults, where the “teacher” is merely a technical assistant to the self of the learner. The learner has an appetite for interiority, but finds it confusing.
The basic model for this relationship is what Carl Rogers described as “the helping relationship” fifty years ago. Rogers’ formulation of this relationship paved the way for the present era of personal growth technologies in the West. He first proposed the basic principle of this relationship in the nineteen-forties: “I have come to trust the capacity of persons to explore and understand themselves and their troubles, and to resolve those problems in any close, continuing relationship where I can provide a climate of real warmth and understanding.”
The characteristics of the helping relationship can be summarized as follows:
- Congruence: to be what you are, genuine and without “front”, openly being the feelings and attitudes you actually experience.
- Empathy: accurate understanding of the other’s private, inner world and the ability to communicate significant fragments of that understanding.
- Positive Regard: a full acceptance of what the other actually is.
- Communication skill: the ability to detect the interpretation the other puts on my efforts to express congruence, empathy and positive regard.
When these qualities are present, Rogers says, “change is predicted.” That is, personal [spiritual] growth will occur.
All religions know about the practice of introspection. In most religions it is offered only to a few initiates, not to the general public. Different systems call it by different names, and handle it differently. Some names for introspection are: (1) the classic buddhist term: mindfulness, (2) the Zen phrase : doing nothing, (3) Meister Eckhart’s: Gelassenheit (lit: “letting-ness”) , and (4) the more familiar western term “meditation.”
These terms are all generic and stand for the threshold position of “looking inward”, an initial placing of oneself in the presence of one’s unconscious. However, once one enters the ante-chamber of the interior world by assuming the stance of “mindfulness”, there are still significant choices to make. The world of interiority is quite complex and vast, and there are many options as to purpose and method. Therefore, Chogyam Trungpa’s observation seems to be universally valid, “To start on the path, make friends with yourself; start sitting.” But once you do get inside, there are still choices.
A centrally important aspect of these choices is the degree of freedom each one gives in accessing the unconscious. For the unconscious is rarely entered without prior censorship.
All religions exercise some form of conscious control over their introspective practices. So, one way we have of classifying religions is by the degree of freedom they permit in this matter. On a scale from zero to ten these degrees range from the zero of conservative christianity to the seven or eight of the “free association” of psychotherapy, or the nine of Sufi mindfulness.
Some examples of forms of control are (a) meditation protocols (mantras, texts, images), (b) rituals, (c) theological treatises, (d) chanting.
Lack of freedom is due to the fact that the content of the unconscious is extremely unfamiliar to the conscious mind and potentially very painful. In regard to the issue of unfamiliarity, the information stored in the unconscious is non-linear and extra-rational. It includes elements that are neither visual, auditory nor conceptual, but purely tactile and kinesthetic. In regard to pain, the unconscious contains the memories of all the early experiences of life that were painful to the fetus, infant and young child that we all once were. Thus entry into the unconscious can produce all manner of mystery and surprises, some of which can be emotionally devastating.
So, religions generally approach it very cautiously, in a highly structured manner. In fact, taking the notion of freedom one step further, we can classify religions and schools of meditation by the degree to which they are escapist or engaging of the painful content of the unconscious.
I would note three major structures in wide use today and that have been around for thousands of years. They therefore represent three fundamentally basic strategies humans have devised for getting into the unconscious, but doing so safely.
1) concentration (“one-pointed”) meditation. This Hindu technique is, I would say, resolutely escapist, and produces powerful out-of-body states that can anesthetize the subject in regard to physical pain, but also isolate the subject from physical/social reality and lead to the construction of inegalitarian and insensitive social systems (e.g., the caste system).
2) vipassana (“non-judgmental insight”) meditation. This ancient and powerful buddhist technique is, I would say, delicately and subtly escapist in its orientation. The distancing of “self” from the content of the unconscious through the technique of being non-judgmental creates a soft but powerful barrier between the ego and all painful memories. In order for “healing” to occur — the only process that leads to complete integration of these materials — pain must be allowed to “come up.” Of course, if one does not have the tools to handle such memories, they can overwhelm. So, vipassana is an effective introspective tool for the culture and the period of history in which psychotherapeutic insight into childhood trauma was not available.
3) Western monastic meditation (text-based, image-based, concept-based). This cornerstone of Christian consciousness is I would say, powerfully ambivalent. I would call it 80% escapist and encouraging the subject to live in an out-of-body state organized around the verbal-conceptual imagination. It lives in storyland. However, insofar as the central “story” of storyland is biblical, it has the opportunity to live in real-time history versus imagined history. So, the principal problem of Christianity is distinguishing between imagination and perception. It tends to wander off into ego-centric flights of fantasy. It’s most dangerous heresy is Gnosticism, an actually schizophrenic escape into fantasy. It also produces a highly paradoxical social system: it is horrendously violent, supports a completely ego-centric and head-tripping patriarchal bureaucracy, but also produces a societal commitment to personal freedom and equality that is unique among human cultures.
In the fourth place I note a recent addition to the repertoire of choices that take off from the ante-chamber of mindfulness. It is derived not from a religious source, but from a scientific source. So, it is secular. We can call it therapeutic mindfulness. It is the culmination of centuries of trial and error. It is secularism’s signal contribution to human spirituality.
This is a form of “meditation” that seeks to engage the painful content of the unconscious in order to heal it. Its success depends on understanding the somatic foundation of traumatic injury, and the ability of “inner body sensing” to re-organize somatic imprints left over from early injury. This technique actually seeks out the source of pain. It is Rumi’s technique.
Note that each of these four techniques is a “path” that one can take from the common ante-chamber of “mindfulness” into the deeper layers of the unconscious.
The form of therapeutic mindfulness I practice is a part of the practice of “trauma work” of a school called Hakomi Integrative Somatics. One Hakomi practitioner gives the following explanation:
The fact that the Christianity of the Augustinian Arrangement (See Chap. 12) put its main investment in technologies that put people to sleep was merely an adaptation to the needs of the time. There is nothing in the central event of Christian “revelation” that requires falling asleep. I would suggest that quite the contrary is true. Once we get that, then I think the door is open to a fully non-sectarian discipline of human wholeness, beyond creed, beyond code, beyond cult, beyond identity. The human project as such.
Holiness is wholeness. Wholeness is holiness. Wholeness is all there is.