I have been discussing with colleagues how the models we have, explicit or implicit, of what is possible and desirable, can affect how we function, even if we don’t know we have such models. With respect to “meditation,” I thought it might be interesting to share one of the communications I have sent to my colleagues at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. So….
Here I want to share one little “insight” – or perhaps it’s a rationalization – on the importance of making our models of spiritual development more conscious, as a contribution to why this line of discussion is important.
Models as Problem Creators:
I have always characterized myself as a “poor,” unskilled meditator, so while I may like the 20 or 30 minutes of relaxation from a daily meditation, I almost never think I’ve “accomplished” anything beyond relaxing for a bit. To feel this way, I must obviously have some sort of standards, some model or models of “meditative accomplishment” that I am judging myself against.
For most of my life these models of spiritual/transpersonal insight have been rather vague ideas of some sort of dramatic, life-changing event, like sexual orgasm or a psychedelic drug experience. Just feeling relaxed after sitting hardly qualifies!
The last few years I’ve eased up on the dramatic event model and had a more Buddhist model of deep, striking, probably life-changing insights into the fundamental nature of mind, perhaps the Buddhist trio of annica, annata, and dukkha, Impermanence, No Permanent Self, and the Unsatisfactoriness of all phenomena. Intellectually I’ve always had some understanding of these – things change, my “self,” whatever it is, is a changing process rather than a hard lump of unchanging stuff, and there must be higher level satisfactions than ordinary ones. But this level of intellectual understanding hasn’t had any particular effect on my life, so it must not, I’ve believed, be the real understandings of Impermanence, No Permanent Self, and Unsatisfactoriness.
Note the capitalization of these three terms: that’s how I hear them in Buddhist teachings or often see them explicitly spelled, they are Big Deals, leading to enlightenment, not ordinary intellectual understandings. So here’s another model I’ve been implicitly and sometimes explicitly judging myself against and repeated concluding that I’m a unskilled meditator: I’ve had no dramatic, breakthrough insights into Impermanence, No Permanent Self, and Unsatisfactoriness.
A couple of years ago, at a retreat led by Shinzen Young, I was telling him about how my thoughts and eyes-closed imagery were always changing as I tried to do vipassana, so that I felt bad about it, like I couldn’t concentrate well or something. Shinzen mentioned that I could reframe that as seeing impermanence. Impermanence? The Impermanence? That Big Deal Impermanence? Wow!
Well of course, in retrospect, that’s exactly what I’ve been observing for years, I was just judging it against vague standards that totally discounted my experience. Maybe some people have sudden, terrific breakthroughs to see Impermanence, maybe some, like me, see it on a small scale over and over and over and that eventually leads to something interesting? That I’m not “failing” here, but doing just what’s needed? A different model….
Being a psychologist, of course, who’s had a life-long research project of trying to figure out Charley Tart, I also have to consider other possible explanations. Like Shinzen’s teaching style, for instance, is very supportive of what students are doing and gently steering them in useful directions – it just wouldn’t be his style to say “You’ve indeed been wasting your time all these years and failing….” And my feeling of having a great load lifted from my shoulders with the idea that I’d been observing Impermanence instead of being a failure – a grasping at a rationalization that makes me feel good? I don’t have any final answer, but I’m feeling better, I’m paying more attention to this constant flow, morphing, changing of thought, sensation and imagery….
Next Model Change – or Rationalization?
So a few days ago I was doing vipassana – to be specific, sitting still, eyes closed, while trying to observe the whole range of sensory and mental (internal visual images and internal talk) experience with concentration, clarity and equanimity – and having one of my most typical experiences, slipping off into sleep, having tiny, quickly forgotten dreamlets, coming back to full consciousness and feeling inadequate and unskilled that I slip into sleep so much when I try to meditate.
Then last weeks discussion about models triggered an insight in me. Was I just being “bad,” unskilled? What was my model that I was judging myself against? OK, it became clear, I have implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) had a model that there should be an objective, unmoved Watcher, or Watching Process (capitalization to make it a Big Deal again) that keeps track of all experience continuously, even as I slip into sleep, have dreamlets, go off on wandering thoughts, etc. Either I didn’t have such a Watching Process or I couldn’t access it, so judged myself a failure.
But wait a minute. Instead of putting myself down for all these failures, my habit, suppose I applied a new model, one about the importance of seeing No Permanent Self, Annata. Oh my goodness, in my dissolutions, I was observing this truth! There is no unchanging watcher, my conscious “self” is indeed impermanent, depending on circumstances (like not being too sleepy), and so it came and went.
Well this feels better than judging myself as failing over and over again….
Although I don’t feel enlightened or awakened, whatever that would be like, from realizing this. Maybe as with annica, Impermanence, I have to keep observing this over and over and over and eventually something happens?
And, knowing what a rationalizer Charley Tart can be, maybe this is just a glorification of the simple observation that I get sleepy a lot and my mind drifts a lot to both rationalize away my failure feelings and trick me into thinking I was doing something “spiritual?”
Anyway, this was a good illustration to me, and hopefully might serve that function for others in stimulating personal insights, of how implicit, as well as explicit models of what spiritual progress, awakening, enlightenment is can affect what we do. Didn’t Freud say something like our job is to make the unconscious conscious?