The Arts of Interiority
“It is amazing what can happen when you are present.”
Religion and psychology share an interest in the arts of interiority, but there are many different forms of them in use today. Some names for them 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 stance of “looking inward”, of placing 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 .
One 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 have introspective techniques. But they all also exercise some form of conscious control over them. 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 religious structures in wide use today and that have been around for thousands of years. They therefore represent three fundamentally basic strategies 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.
4) In the fourth place I note a recent addition to the selection of paths that take off from the ante-chamber of mindfulness. This is therapeutic interiority, an orientation that seeks to engage the painful content of the unconscious in order to heal it. There are many different techniques for therapeutic introspection — from Freud’s couch with an analyst not facing the client to Carl Rogers’ non-ritualized conversation — all of them designed to produce safety.
The latest technique to enter the field is the “trauma work” of several schools of body-centered psychotherapy. Its success depends on the recently-articulated insight into the somatic foundation of traumatic injury, and the recently- discovered ability of “inner body sensing” to re-organize somatic imprints left over from early injury. This technique actively seeks out the source of pain. Its validity was intuitively perceived by the 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, who commented that, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.”
This is the key innovation in the arts of interiority in recent times. It exploits the connection between repressed emotions on the one hand and the physiological sequences of the animal response to trauma that are programmed into the human body. This connection at the same time explains the difficulty conventional psychotherapy has had in relieving the symptoms of traumatic experience and provides new tools for handling that difficulty.
The key tool in this technique is the natural “inner body sense” the human organism has, by which the powers of the neo-cortex can detect and revise the physiological imprints left over from traumatic experiences. However, although this “inner body sense” is a natural piece of human equipment, it is also an ability that has not been cultivated by modern western culture. We have the skill, but we are not very good at it.
In the absence of any skilled use of the inner body sense, anyone who has experienced trauma is actually living “outside of his/her body”. That is to say, the conscious functions of such a person must operate in avoidance of the fears and pains lodged in the incomplete response sequences created by traumatic experience. These memories act like an emotional scar tissue on the inner receptivity capacities of the psyche and create distractions to all of our attention-giving mechanisms. These distractions show up as “irrational” impulses, attitudinal “blind spots”, systematic inability to absorb certain kinds of information, “prejudices”, sudden and unexplained loss of attention, and the like. The more of this emotional scar tissue we can remove from our psyches, the more complete is our attention-giving ability.
Furthermore, once we recognize the significance of “the Alice Miller finding” — that virtually all contemporary cultures employ child-rearing practices that traumatize — then we are close to understanding that all of us, this whole culture in general, has a “presence problem”.
If you think of “living in your body” as a condition scaled from ten to zero, with 10 being living completely in your body, in contact with all the information it contains, and zero being a state of catatonic panic — fixed stare, immobilized large muscles — then the Alice Miller finding suggests that we are all living no more completely in our bodies than the range of presence from about three to six.
We do live pretty well in our fore-brains and sexual organs, but the rest of the brain and body are pretty much out of circuit. We think that because we can fly to the moon and keep the price of stocks rising that we are the “end” of human development. Pish-tosh!! We are much more likely an interesting prelude to significant human maturity. That would explain why we have so much alcohol and drug consumption, suppression of women, violence and, appallingly bad distribution of wealth.
However, now that we understand how trauma works and the importance of the inner body sense, we can engage in presence training. It is indeed amazing what can happen when you are fully present.
Some topics in the process of Presence Training (there are others): Mindfulness, Just Noticing, Sensation and Emotion, Dissociation Dynamics, Slowing Down…
This kind of body awareness was researched twenty years ago by Eugene Gendlin (See Focussing, Bantam Books, first published in 1978), more recently by Peter Levine (See Waking the Tiger, North Atlantic Books, 1997), and is currently the core of the therapy techniques taught by the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy team of Boulder, Colorado…..