Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Meaning

In the early days of psychoanalysis, finding hidden meaning was an analyst's bread and butter.  Emotional expression was pretty contained in those days and dreams, slips of the tongue and other actions often provided revealing clues to a person's inner state.  World War II, and particularly the Holocaust, triggered the Age of Anxiety, wherein the Existentialists changed the conversation about meaning.  A few, most notably Victor Frankl, wrote that the human being's ability and need to find meaning is life-saving (hinting at the wave of Humanistic psychologists to come in the sixties and seventies).  But many more felt that life is meaningless and that humans, if they need to, must conjure up their own meanings.

An echo of these somewhat contradictory views seems to continue today with some neo-Advaitins calling the New Ager's joy in synchronistic "messages" pure superstition.  But I'd like to go back to some of the questions Frankl raised.  Why is meaning important?  Why does lack of meaning in one's life sometimes cause so much pain it drives a person to therapy?

Years ago, I started to notice that transcendent experiences in myself and others carried a common theme:  every manifestation of the Absolute is meaningful.  In other words, in states of heightened awareness the world is felt to be saturated with meaning.  Not that there is hidden meaning somewhere else, but that meaningfulness is an inherent quality of creation.  Dilgo Kyhentse Rinpoche pointed to this mystery when he said that everything is a symbol but that there is no difference between the symbol and the truth itself.  No question, we love to make up stories about our experiences that carry personal meaning for us.  But if we're looking for meaningfulness, it is already shot through life itself, waiting to be seen with a clear mind.  In fact, it is usually the attachment to our personal stories that prevents us from glimpsing the mystery of life's omnipresent meaning.

If life is filled with meaningfulness, then it seems to me that nature would be designed to be sensitive to it.  Can we say that animals are responding to meaning when they run to higher ground before a tsunami?  Or a seed when it waits for precise signals from temperature and light before it begins to sprout?  Meaningfulness may create its own vocabulary, depending upon the creature.  But I like to think that we are programmed to search for meaning just exactly so that we'll keep looking beyond the human-made answers that never last.  The answers may elude us, but it is the search that makes us.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Body Enlightenment

People who have spiritual experiences often note bells-and-whistles body phenomena -- visions, energy rushes, sounds and the like.  Yet I have noted body changes accompanying the whole arc of human growth.  Sometimes the body sparks the change, sometimes change sparks the body.  As a former dancer and long-time Tai Chi student, I have been fortunate to live and work in a time of explosive interest in body-mind modalities of treatment and research: neo-Reichian body work, Rolfing, Yoga, Psychoneuroimmunology, Brain Scanning, Massage -- the list seems to grow daily.  But even the simple therapeutic moments of sitting under a tree or talking with a friend can instigate changes in the body.  And almost everybody can point to a time when dancing or exercise changed their state of consciousness or mood.

The Taoist view of the body that supports Tai Chi suggests that there are three kinds of energy in the human being (and the world): jing, qi or chi, and shen, roughly translated as essence, vitality and spirit.  The levels and expression of these three "treasures," change constantly as, for example, when heavy self-absorption prevents access to shen, or depressive thoughts dampen qi.  The opposite is also true.  There is a common moment in therapy when the person sitting across from me suddenly appears stunningly beautiful.  Yes, to know someone well is to love them and I cannot come to know someone without opening my heart.  But often this jump in beauty is noticed by others, too.  I believe this is a jump in both qi and shen.

Many physical events accompany human change.  When releasing chronic defenses against feeling, people can become achingly tired for awhile.  Pains and illnesses come and go.  So does weight.  Sexual appetite can ignite or disappear.  Food preferences are unstable, as is the ability to sleep.  But we are less clear, because it is new, on what happens when a shen-infused, spiritualized body walks the earth.   I suspect as more and more of us reach this territory, we're meant to do more than just fly off with the Immortals.

Contemporary spiritual teachers don't always address the body in their talks.  Two wonderful exceptions are Adyashanti and Reginald Ray.  Both are committed to understanding what it means to embody enlightenment and believe that enlightenment is unfinished if it is not brought deeply into human, bodily experience.  Using the Taoist model I find so helpful, this means that jing, qi and shen come into balance, both within the body and in the body's relationship to the larger world.  A fully expressed, realized body might be consciously alive and full of love right down to the DNA in the cells.  What a world these bodies might create.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Working to Wake Up

So what is it about psychotherapy -- or any other path of sustained attention -- that sometimes sparks spiritual awakening?  I've written earlier that attention is energy and that attention, especially on the present moment, is an invitation to the greater energy of life to move us, to help us grow.  That we can grow, and want to grow, is part of the miracle of evolutionary creation.  What is even more strange, in my experience, is that when we commit to allowing the forces of life to transform us, the very events of our lives seem to rearrange themselves in a way that is both profoundly challenging and helpful.

Every one of us has wounds and places of fragility.  We are human.  These "issues" are veins of richness to be mined throughout the lifetime.  Life events compel us to come at them again and again, mining new insights.  Even after we are awake and can see that there is only One Living Being manifesting Itself in ever-changing creation, we still bump into our places of pain from time to time.  But from increasingly awakened states, the places of pain are respected and loved as everything else in life is loved.

Spiritual/psychological work requires us, first, to face pain, then, to feel it.  This is where life seems to offer up to us the exact situations we need in order for the pain to be re-evoked.  All of us, at first, go into
frantic campaigns not to feel what is coming up for attention.  But, in my opinion, pain must be felt before it can be released or allowed to settle into its rightful place.  Finally we can surrender to the Life that is trying to grow us.  We can arrive at that place of integrity and peace where we accept ourselves in our entirety -- including all the gritty, messy, unpleasant and unattractive parts.  This unfathomable self-acceptance, this unlimited love for the human being we are, is no longer personal.  It is a love that expands to include life itself and is, in truth, Life Loving Itself.  The ability to view one's fallible self impersonally and with great love seems to me to be a mind-boggling (literally!) gift of evolution.  Many find that the work of life brings them to this state of grace on the deathbed.  More and more of us are finding that we cannot wait.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

That Pesky Ego

There are constant debates in spiritual circles -- is awakening gradual or discontinuous, does the ego die, is enlightenment the end or the beginning, have I got it or lost it?  My own answer is yes to everything.  We are here to embody the spiritual in a new way and nobody really knows what that's going to look like eventually.  That's why it is so fascinating to watch people grow.

But there are some common troubles folks run into along the way.  One is ego inflation -- the Sufis call it ego saint -- where the human personality takes new wisdom or ecstatic experience personally.  As we all know, the vicissitudes of life take care of this problem nicely.  The whole pride goeth before a fall thing.  Another, trickier problem is a kind of inverted ego inflation.  It seems to be more common in women and it shows up particularly in spiritual paths that involve what Carol Flinders calls "naughting."  Many, if not most, paths use some form of spiritual austerity to abrade the ego.  If you've got a ripe, healthy ego to begin with, this is useful.  But many women don't and the constant suppression of egoic needs can cause them to flip into a painful inversion:  I am special because I am nothing.  Or worse:  I am special because I am pond scum.  Man or woman, the goal is to become ordinary.

It helps me to remember that Freud never intended that we think of the ego as a diabolical mini-me that we must conquer.  Freud said, the ego is first and foremost a body ego.  The ego is a function, an organizing process, at most a virtual entity.  This is easy to see if you are lucky enough to fall into your Big Mind sometimes.  The ego keeps us from psychosis so we should respect it, but not take its voice so seriously all the time.  The spiritual seeker needs courage and healthy ego function.

I don't know what an increasingly spiritualized Nature intends for our egos.  Sometimes I think we'll share an ego, like a hive, except that evolution seems to push for individuation and diversity.  My own observations say we'll become more unselfconscious, happier and therefore more altruistic.  Maybe not so left-brained.  I also believe we cannot grow unless we learn to love all of our human equipment, bodies and egos included.