Getting Tangled in Illusion/Samsara

Many times in my life I’ve been presented with some useful truth – and I don’t get it.  But if it’s presented to me several times, and/or in several different forms, I may finally understand.  Here I’m thinking about the idea, common to all spiritual traditions I know of, that there is something badly wrong in the way we live, the Christian idea of the Fall, for example, or the Buddhist and Hindu ideas that our perception and thinking is so out of touch with reality that we live in a state of illusion and unnecessary suffering.  Samsara and maya are the Buddhist and  Hindu terms for this.  If we understand this situation better we can do something about it.  Here are some ideas about the way we are fallen, samsaric, mayic, in what I believe is a novel form.

I’m not good at math, but sometimes I think some psychological truths can be expressed nicely as simple equations.  A prime example that inspired me this way was Shinzen Young’s equation

S = P * R

Suffering, S, what you experience, is a product of P, the actual physical intensity of a pain multiplied by R, your psychological resistance to this kind of experience.  It shows how with a highly resistant attitude, even a little physical (or emotional) pain can produce enormous suffering, whereas with an open, equanimous meditative attitude (which can be learned), pain can not only be no greater than it’s actual physical value, if R is less than one it can even be reduced.  At the extreme, meditative equanimity can be such that even though you’re in great physical pain, your suffering is tiny or non-existent.  I know this works for me, at least for low to moderate levels of physical pain – I don’t really want to test the relationship with high levels of physical pain if I can avoid it, thank you….    😉

I’ve written more about this in an earlier blog post (“Pain versus Suffering,” July 27, 2009) and Shinzen’s recent book discusses the theory and practice in detail (Young, Shinzen, 2009, Break Through Pain: A Step-by-Step Mindfulness Meditation Program for Transforming Chronic and Acute Pain. Boulder, CO: Sounds True).

On a recent Dzogchen retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, I came up with the following.  This clarifies some things about the Buddhist idea that we live in “illusion,” samsara for me, perhaps it will for some others.   So, starting with the assumptions I make:

Assumption # 1:  Western psychotherapy tends to deal mainly with maladaptive, complex psychological structures.  Some are successfully dealt with in therapy, others are hard to deal with because the component parts from which they are built are hard to discern and so deal with effectively.  A particular flavor of emotion, e.g., may actually hide several sub-flavors, depression hiding covert anger, as one example.

Assumption # 2:  Classical Buddhist meditation tends to deal mainly with very basic, more “micro” processes that complex, psychological processes are built from, and, by progressively freeing one from attachment, aversion and ignorance (“purification”), tends to reduce or dissolve the suffering caused by complex psychological processes.

Assumption # 3: It is useful at times to talk about specific items/processes of ongoing experience, even though flow and morphing can also connect in causal ways what might be separated out as relatively discrete events.

So, my math-like formulation:

Let T = Tangledness, the degree to which specific items/processes of experience combine with, interact with other items/processes of experience.  Rough synonyms would be viscosity, density, charge, stickiness.

For a relatively discrete event at time 1, then,

T1 = R1 / f(S1, C1, Q1)


T1 = degree of Tangledness at time1

R = real properties of event at time1

C = mental clarity at time1

S = mental Spaciousness at time1

Q = Equanimity at time1

Verbally, Tangledness is a function of the real properties of a particular event/process.  Strong physical or emotional pain, e.g., is more likely to cause that event to entangle with others than, say, a mild feeling of warmth, or thoughts of what kind of bread to buy at the grocery store.  There are probably important differences among individuals as to the R properties of what might appear to be identical events to an outsider.

The Tangledness of an event/process is reduced/divided to varying degrees by three variables (which I separate conceptually here, but which may be interrelated in reality), the mental/emotional/physical Spaciousness of the experiencer during the event/process, the Clarity of mental/emotional/perceptual functioning, and the experiencer’s Equanimity (Q) at that time.

If one is spacious at the time of an event, experiencing “oneself” as very large and open, “empty” in Buddhist terms, the disturbance possibilities, entanglement possibilities of an event/process are only a small part of “you,” so of less importance, and may be swept away by the continuing flow of events/processes.  This is, I believe, what Dzogchen refers to as “aimless self-liberation” when one is “resting in” “rigpa.”  Clarity and Equanimity (Q) have a similar effects, but I’m distinguishing them from Spaciousness in that there may be a more forceful, willed quality to clarity and equanimity, a deliberate focusing, calming and non-reacting rather than just resting in Spaciousness.  The distinction can be illustrated by willfully relaxing one’s muscles as you feel them beginning to tighten up in reaction to an event, e.g., or using a little “willpower” to keep perception clear, as compared to just being spacious, “empty” and open, so events/processes just flow through freely without effort on your part to make that happen.

Assumption # 4:  Now relax Assumption # 3 above and assume that most events at particular times are not fully independent on one another, but interact in ways that entangle them and produce higher and higher degrees of Tangledness in consciousness overall.  This interaction may be linear and/or non-linear and/or non-linearly emergent.  Thus the overall Tangledness (“samsaricness”) (lost in one’s internal “story”), (ΣT) of consciousness over time may be represented as a function of addition and interactiveness of individual event/process entanglements:

ΣT = f(T1, T2,  …   Tn)

Analogy: Picture hair balls clogging water pipes, producing turbulence, reducing flow.  The more tangled the hair balls, the less likely one can take them apart, distinguish individual hairs and pull them free, or straighten them so they don’t hook other hairs….  The more and the bigger the hair balls (karmic lumps?) the more they interact and make bigger tangles…..Bigger tangles are more likely to ensnare and tangle new experiences as they come along, etc.

Specifics needed.  For particular Ts, we need to find if the function is, e.g.,

ΣT = T1 + T2 + …   Tn

or, analogously with your pain and suffering equation,

ΣT = T1 * T2 * …   Tn

Or, a third possibility, emergents may occur.  I don’t know how to symbolize in standard math form that idea that some of the effects of the various Tns may result in higher level emergents, qualitatively different outcomes.

Anyway, for me this is a useful and fun way of thinking about how vipassana (as Shinzen Young teaches it) and/or the spaciousness cultivated in Dzogchen (insofar as I understand it, from the teachings of lamas Sogyal Rinpoche or Tsoknyi Rinpoche and their teachers) leads to purification…..

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