Work Unceasingly on the Psychodynamic Issues
Which Separate You from Happiness:
The Practice of Psychological Inquiry
God is discussing with His angels where He should place the secret of life
so that it would be most difficult to find.
One suggested the bowels of the earth, another the bottom of the sea,
a third the highest mountain.
A fourth angel objected: “Men will eventually search out all these places.
The only place is within man himself. He will never dream of looking there.”
When we are identified with our usual sense of a conditioned self it is impossible to function to our fullest potential. In fact, it can be said that our degree of clarity is inversely proportional to our identification with our personality. So it is vitally important to deeply investigate all the ways in which we are attached to that small, limited sense of personal self, bounded by our past history. Modern humanistic psychotherapies have tried to draw on a multitude of methods to systematically achieve mind-body integration. By carefully evaluating our personal development, specific approaches can be engaged to take advantage of our strengths or to correct psychodynamic weaknesses which prevent contentment and fulfillment.
Often people are drawn to certain modes of spiritual engagement or practice because of strong underlying strengths. Some very outer-directed, energetic individuals are very well suited for service work. Some scientists with great powers of concentration and a powerful drive to investigate mysteries of the physical universe, are graced with epiphanies because of their work in this realm. But conversely, people can be drawn toward various spiritual practices out of self centeredness or a drive to protect maladaptive, ego defense mechanisms.
For instance, many individuals have been so emotionally or physically traumatized in youth that they have deep, ingrained emotional patterns which cut them off from their own bodies and feelings. Many have learned to escape to the comfort of the mind and thoughts at times when emotional conflict starts to be felt in the body. These individuals are frequently attracted to spiritual disciplines that center around mental exercise, which they are often quite good at. But maturity, integration, and wholeness are sabotaged, because what these individuals need most is precisely what they are avoiding---intimate contact with their bodies and emotional soul. They probably need less reinforcement of patterns that stimulate mental activity.
Sometimes individuals who have a vivid imagination and a fantasizing mind are ill served by certain meditative practices that encourage spaciousness and expansiveness of consciousness; these practices can further blur the person’s discrimination of what is real and what is merely a creation of thoughts. More appropriate exercises might be ones that are more grounding, that center on physical sensations and active engagement in the here and now.
Some individuals who never achieved a strong, healthy sense of self might get caught up in devotional practices and have great difficulty perceiving what healthy boundaries are needed in the real world. The sense of one’s personal self often becomes confused with that of a deity or teacher. This leads in many cases to blind obedience by followers of unskilled or corrupt religious leaders in a cult where physical, sexual, and emotional abuse occurs.
One particular powerful psychological poison that damages personal development is judgments. They can be in the form of internalized parental superego attacks (“You’ll never amount to anything!” “How can you be so stupid?” “You’re not as good looking as _______.”), shoulds, shouldn’ts, self criticisms, perfectionism, or self-hatred. They might also show up as judgments projected onto others or our environment, or as continual, non-productive comparisons of self and other. The damage arises from the engagement of different psychological mechanisms which obscure our clarity and wisdom. When an ego is attacked by judgments it is triggered into defending a perspective in which it is a separate self, apart from others and the rest of the Universe. Judgments obscure acceptance of reality as it is. When we can’t accept the here and now, we are forced to act like a separate individual who needs to struggle with life.
Therefore an important aid to personal unfoldment is careful awareness of our daily judgments and comparisons, along with a contemplative investigation into the damaging self images and identities that spawn them. Who do we take ourselves to be at those times? Is that our clearest identity? Whenever we catch ourselves falling prey to judgments it is helpful to disengage from them as soon as possible. This can be done by different means. One, is just an adamant, “No, I am not going to listen to that negativity!” Just turn it off. Sometimes humor can be used when we see the absurd nature of our self criticisms. Reality testing can be one of the most effective means for disengaging from habitual forms of self attacks. Simply see the truth of the present situation and the false layering of old childhood programming on the present moment. (“I am not stupid. I made a simple, correctable error which most people frequently make.”) Compassion for oneself and others is always a valuable tool to combat the negativity of judgments. Use it liberally.
Buddhism classifies five major categories of psychological hindrances which block clarity of consciousness: Sense desires, aversions, laziness, restlessness, and doubt. We will discuss briefly how they pose problems and how it is best to work with them.
Everyone has desires to touch, taste, hear, and see pleasant things. There is nothing basically problematic with that. The difficulty enters in when we define ourselves and are automatically controlled by our attachments to those desires. These objects of desire are often unconscious fillers that are used to defensively plug holes of emptiness in ourselves because we have lost a truer source of our value, beauty, love, and peacefulness. Our attachment to objects of desire more firmly structures a sense of a solid, separate, familiar, personal self. We then go chasing one sense desire after another so as not to feel the deficient emptiness of our wounded self. With each act of grasping for a desire we entrench our limited sense of self and distance ourselves from a joy free of those pulls.
Aversions, anger, hatred, ill will are just the flip side of sense desires. Our personalities use them in the same way...to help define and make more solid a separate sense of an individual, familiar self. Boredom falls in this category also because we are not accepting of the present moment and want to be somewhere else “more interesting.” At the core of many of our aversions is fear. It is important to recognize this for it tells us that we do not trust that the universe is unfolding as it should. Aversions keep us away from an open, spacious relationship with the present moment and thus blocks the mind’s awakening.
Laziness and sleepiness are large obstacles to being alert and present for the moment at hand. Often it is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism that our personality uses to prevent us from investigating into our limiting identities...who we take ourselves to be. Our personalities will frequently “go to sleep” or “space out” or indulge in activities we know are harmful to our development at just the times when we are about to break free from the confinement of our limited sense of a maladaptive self.
Restlessness or agitation is another element in our experience which keeps us from being present and as with laziness it is often present when old identifications from childhood and infancy start to surface to awareness. This is so uncomfortable to the personality (whose job it is to keep much of these mechanisms hidden) that it activates a very vague agitated, prickly impetus to escape the present moment.
Doubt is the final traditional psychological hindrance to spiritual unfoldment found in Buddhist teachings. Doubt in ourselves and the path of awakening derail many sincere explorers of consciousness. It can be very difficult to overcome. Again it is a mechanism by which the personality says, “You are getting too close to unveiling the charade of your maladaptive conditionings. Better leave this path of awakening alone. (It is too hard. I have to give up too much. There are better paths. This isn’t meant for me. I’m too weak, scared, tired....”)
There are numerous ways of working with these five hindrances (or 500 if you count all their flavors). The most important is to shine the light of awareness on them with allowing, compassion, lightheartedness, and as much detachment as possible. “Oh, how interesting, here is grasping after pleasantness arising in my experience. I wonder what that is about?” “Oh, look, here is that anger again. And just a few minutes ago I was happy. Where did that come from?”
It is important to feel these feelings fully but not act out on them, judge them, or indulge them. Feel the grasping quality of sense desires, the longing. Was there a period of deficiency just prior to its arising? What thoughts were there in the mind? Feel the anger. Where is it in the body? Do you feel hot? Contracted? Hard? How does it change my breathing? What is beneath the anger? What might I be afraid of? “Oh, now I feel a bit shaky and frightened and there is a rubbery hardness around my heart. My legs feel weak....” Beware of the desire to push difficult feelings away and NOT to look at them. We must allow ourselves to be open to EVERYTHING in our experience. This will bring with it some tremendously difficult feelings. But the path of awakening was never meant to be easy, just very rich.
With sleepiness, laziness, sloth or torpor it may be difficult to have the energy to even bring awareness to the experience. Sometimes it is necessary to muster some energy just to inquire into the feeling. Do what is necessary to wake up enough to investigate the feeling. Do a walking meditation. Splash some water on your face. Some of the laziness will still remain so go into that feeling and see what it is about, how it arose and the feelings and self images that support it.
Restlessness can be such an irritable quality that we are gone away from the present moment so quickly it is difficult to catch ourselves just as we become restless and agitated. The more we practice looking at this hindrance though the sooner we will catch it in the beginning. Staying with an awareness of agitation is exceedingly difficult at times. We can have the intention to investigate it and before we know it we are hunting in the refrigerator for food or cleaning an obscure corner of the room...anything to escape that feeling. Much can be learned about the origins of the self by being diligent at investigating this agitation. It often leads to a core frustration in infancy. Frequently, it can only be felt and intellectual clarity about it is not easy since it represents preverbal experiences of great discomfort which were in existence just as the foundations of the personality were being constructed. So just staying with the feeling is what is needed until it transforms itself as it always will.
Doubt can be worked with in the same way...with awareness, not acting out on the doubt but feeling its sabotaging action, undermining right effort and making the path of illumination dark. “This awareness technique isn’t right for me. I need something different.” “How will I function without my usual identities?” “I’ve been practicing for years and where has it gotten me?” It is important to beware of doubt as it arises and name it, not become attached to the apparent rightness of the thoughts. Sometimes we have to persevere through doubt before we can see enough of its false accusations.
This brings up another way of working with hindrances which needs great caution. Expert guidance is very wise to have in this regard. Sometimes we need to practice the opposite quality just to gain some perspective on the hindrance. When anger is particularly troublesome to spiritual unfolding it is sometimes helpful to practice lovingkindness for a bit. When sleepy, muster up some energy. When doubtful persevere. The tricky part of working with hindrances in this way is that there is a tendency to repress the emotions and then we are stuck with another whole layer of defensiveness with which to deal.
With practice we can learn to embrace these psychological hindrances as great teaching tools for deep self discovery, unveiling the tangled web of our personality and seeing a clearer reality.
At the depths of contemplative practice are profound experiences of boundlessness and unusual states of consciousness. Navigating these powerful experiences can get extremely difficult. Transpersonal psychologists and spiritual teachers have worked with a phenomenon termed “spiritual emergency.” These experiential phenomenon are often depicted with symptoms similar to severe psychological disturbance, emotional conflict, and mental dysfunction. People experiencing such difficulties are frequently in altered states of consciousness, are disoriented by their surroundings, have problems relating to others, and are frightened by very unusual bodily sensations. They think that they are possessed by the devil, going crazy, spoken to by God, undergoing a “dark night of the soul,” or being assaulted by psychic forces. By looking at the experience as a difficult phase in personal development, professionals working at the Spiritual Emergence Network help these individuals understand and integrate their experience into the whole of their lives.
Working with all the complex elements of the personality is a rich treasure trove of grist for the mill. Efforts at understanding the inner dynamics of our personality will bring incredible rewards in our unfoldment. The veils of the personality are what hide our deeper potential. We must see through these veils to dive deeply into a mature spiritual life.
The Enneagram by Helen Palmer
Focusing by Eugene Gendlin
What We May Be: Techniques for Psychological and Spiritual Growth by Piero Ferrucci
The Call for Spiritual Emergency: From Personal Crisis to Personal Transformation by Emma Bragdon
Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Become a Crisis by Stan and Christina Grof
The Stormy Search for Self: A Guide to Personal Growth Through Transformative Crisis by Christina and Stan Grof
Soul Without Shame by Byron Brown
Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
“Come, come to the Edge.” He encouraged.
“No, no we will fall.” They replied.
“Come, come to the Edge.” He repeated.
So they went to the Edge. And he pushed them.
And they flew.
The following homework is on-going self inquiry and can be done daily for several decades...always giving new and more subtle insights into the ways in which we unconsciously obscure the most meaningful parts of ourself:
1. Observe superego judgments of self and others throughout the day
a. If you feel bad, suspect a superego attack
b. What self image has been activated?
c. Disengage from superego attack with reality testing, compassion, humor or with whatever else that works.
2. Observe lies, fibs, exaggerations, diplomacy, withheld information, shortened versions of stories, self deceptions...anything which is not 100% truth.
3. Watch reactivity of the personality. The personality gets its juice from reactivity. Are you: Asleep? Defensive? Or protecting a self image? Particularly notice desires. What psychological hole are you trying to fill with that object of desire?
4. Ask yourself -- how is this act, behavior, emotion, or self image conditioned from the past?
5. Take one week for mindful awareness of each of the five hindrances. Then watch them all daily as they arise in your experience.
6. For one week, at the end of each day, ponder on something or someone for which you are grateful.
7. For one week, at the end of each day, write down three good things that happened that day and their causes.
8. For one week, each day, use your "Top Strength" in a new and unique way, whether it be creativity, perseverance, forgiveness, humor, truthfulness, communication, helpfulness, empathy, critical thinking....