Monday 11 September 2023

Questions and Answers: In and Out of the Ego-tunnel

These are questions taken from my Dhamma Tracks page. The responses may back up the ongoing reflections around Dependent Origination.



Why is our experience inextricably linked to our body and its place in the world?



Well, we’re alive. What does that mean? Animate, sensitive, growing, moving, participating in a context whereby we breathe what’s around us, consume it and are made conscious by it. Consciousness is an intelligence that serves the animate being (me) by reporting on what’s happening around and within it. So our experience has external and internal aspects, it’s viññāṇa, a dualistic awareness that presents experience as a ‘world’ (get to that later) and a ‘self’ experiencing it (better get to that later too). It separates into subject and object. Its program (saṅkhāra) is to maintain the life and coherence of a separate living being. That is – ‘see this so that you know what to do about it’. In the Buddha’s analysis, consciousness is dependent on ‘form’ (rūpa) – that is, something detected by a sense base. Because of the eye, we experience a visible world – if there’s nothing to see, visual consciousness is inert. But what that visible form looks like depends on the kind of consciousness we have – we don’t see what a butterfly sees. Furthermore, mental consciousness adds naming (nāma) –  various programs that determine what we attend to and how we respond to form. What is New York like to a Congolese pigmy? And if I walk through a tropical forest with a native person, I just see trees, but she/he ‘sees’ something far more intricate and vivid. So nāma adds a further degree of subjectivity to ‘my world’ – in fact ‘naming’ shapes the ‘me’ bit of any experience. 


Moreover, consciousness itself depends on a sensory form (aka body) as a platform. It seems separate, but actually it’s inextricably linked to name and form, self and world.


All this weave is further complicated by the fact that consciousness operates through not one but six senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and conceiving. That sequence presents an increasing sense of involvement and intimacy, but they all refer to the living body. Seeing places the world at a distance in front of our body, with hearing it’s around us, then we experience being entered (by smell and taste) and wrapped (by skin) and eventually tossed around in and creating a world that extends through time (by mind).  These various sensory messages don’t add up to anything cohesive (and we need a coherent reality in order to function) but mind weaves a few aspects of sense-data and subjective impressions into a workable model – complete with preferences, assumptions, and blind-spots, and we are shaped by all this. Thus we ‘become’ (bhava) an individual self, constantly busy weaving and being bound to ‘my world’. But the self that is created has tunnel vision, it forms in the ‘ego-tunnel’ of ‘my world’ with its self-view.


This tunnel is largely mind-made. Mind-consciousness (mano-viññāṇa) both overrides the bodily sense with its receptivity and responsive energies, and holds the body to be a vehicle, a kind of donkey, or a robot with awkward pains and flushes. Thus mind extricates the ‘me bit’ into an autonomous self that pretends it’s separate from the body and indeed the rest of creation, while dominating and consuming it. Thinking depends on embodied energy, and just as we consume and devastate the planet because we assume we’re not part of it (and yet are affected by that devastation), so we ignorantly consume and devastate our bodily energies.  Hence the domination and exploitation paradigm has dire consequences: externally there is climate-crisis, pollution, and bio-extinction – and internally there’s stress, anxiety, depression and mental illness. It’s an inextricable cosmos.  We have to be touched by it and handle all of it (internal, external) with respect.


But … there is a way out of the world – in this very body. (see A.4:45). So be careful of exclusion. The way to where ‘my world’ ceases is through gaining perspective on and dispassion around nāma.  You do this by sensing how nāma affects your body, through focusing and stimulating (or suppressing) the somatic energies that act as a basis for consciousness. Huh? For example, what does craving feel like in your body? And how about ill-will? Or gratitude, or joy? Two of these impulses twist you up, two give you openness and ease. Bad and good kamma. Like that, you’re going to feel craving and aversion for the poisons that they are, and work on reducing them. And you’re going to incline towards the good stuff. Your inner body can relax compulsive impulses and widen attention into a more receptive mode; it can step out of the ego-tunnel to the end of ‘my world’. That internal process has external consequences.  


However, let’s avoid getting upset or excited about our internal stuff; it’s just conditioned by consciousness, don’t claim it. Let good and bad move through – and you can do that by tracking these energies in your body. So there’s no need to create an identity. Just be in a shared world with conscience and concern, and tune in to the gift and grace of that.



…some advice on settling the mind, developing samādhi, when breathing meditation (due to chronic illness) is very difficult. I also find breathing meditation makes me more tense and tight! 



There are several processes that support true cultivation of heart: goodwill, moral sensitivity, restraint – and mindfulness of body. For what we call ‘meditation’, or the samādhi aspect of cultivation, the Buddha says that mindfulness of body is essential – see my remarks above. To cultivate this fully, we are encouraged to be aware of the body in bodily terms (kaya kaye). In its own terms, the body’s intelligence is one of externally feeling sensations and internally feeling somatic energies (tension, ease, balance, dis-ease and so on). So your job is to get these felt domains settled and comfortable: that’s samādhi practice. In detail it begins by being receptive to whether the body feels safe and settled with what’s around it. And also that its internal somatic presence is not pushed or overridden by the mind’s wishes to daydream, plan or even get into samādhi. If you cultivate balance and sensitivity in bodily terms and restrain the mind’s notions, an aspect of breathing will probably come to the fore. Don’t prejudge the meditation; don’t seek the breath, don’t focus on a point where you want the breathing to be; just be receptive to how breathing happens for you, get interested in it and enjoy its life-sustaining presence. 


If the breathing doesn’t come to the fore, sustain your mindfulness of the body as a whole unit, bounded by skin – its subtly tingling felt boundary. You can walk, sit, stand or recline with mindfulness of the body. When sustained mindfulness settles, and clears imbalance in the body, it ripens into ease – and this is samādhi.



[In a talk] You say ‘...bring attention to the place where the neck enters the skull.’ Why that place as a platform and prelude to resting in the heart?



This was probably a guided meditation where I was encouraging awareness to immerse the body. I imagine there were quite a few pointers in that talk, so this neck/skull area is not the only point, but it is one of the points where tension arises and the body’s interoceptive sense separates the head from the rest of the body. 


This sense of the head being separate from the rest of the body is normal – most people experience themselves as living somewhere behind the eyes – but this isn’t true. Moreover it creates an imbalance. The head is always looking down on the body, directing it, critiquing it, and assuming control over experiences that are not in its domain – such as breathing (which is a whole-body experience, powered by the abdominal and thoracic tissues). The separation is dependent on a lot of energy being gathered and consumed in the head (face, forehead, jaw). This can result in headaches and neck tension. Tension = too much energy locked up in too small an area.


Necks are often tilted forward over a work surface and thereby carry the weight of the skull at an angle. So the neck muscles get tight; therefore energy can’t flow through. If energy can’t flow through, it can’t release and refresh. So energy remains bottled up in the head (= excessive thinking). 


If we can spread some soft, receptive awareness around the juncture of the head and skull, this supports a relaxing and a release of an energetic bottleneck. (The body has a few of these: throat, solar plexus, lower abdomen for example.) A wide and sympathetic awareness brings a corresponding energy to bear. I imagine that was the theme of the meditation. It certainly should be.



 When working with vitakka, a sense of buried "guilt" arises and sometimes the origin is identified and related to past lapse of judgment, wrong view, poor ethical choices that affected not only myself but others. But the problem is now when I interact or relate to others out of this feeling of guilt. It feels anxious, regretful and stifling. Could you elaborate on the Buddha's teachings on guilt?



The heart (citta) is a receptive experience that is attuned to bringing us into harmony. Harmony occurs when it senses a wholesome rapport internally and externally. This involves ethical sensitivity: my actions and intentions are not oppressing or abusing what’s around me, and they are not oppressing or abusing my heart. However due to ignorance and craving, actions and intentions do go astray and the result is a bruised heart – and I am barely aware of it at first. Reviewing that and how it happened brings the experience of remorse (vippatisāra). This is regarded as healthy – we’re waking up, and learning; so remorse encourages ‘conscience and concern’ (hiri-ottappa) and increased mindfulness. The oppressive quality you call ‘guilt’ comes when there is identification with the unskilful action: one becomes the disease rather than the patient. This is an aspect of the hindrance of worry – udhacca-kukkucca; it’s not skilful remorse.  The foundation for this stuck state is the mechanism called clinging. This bonds the heart to a mental state and supports shaping an identity out of it. ‘Shaping’ means one becomes that state. Hence the heart is trapped in a painful ego-tunnel. 


The long-term project is to not create a tunnel in the first place – to witness skilful states as skilful states, gifts not belongings; and unskilful states as diseases. States arise from causes and conditions, not some solid self. Do you see where states arise from? For many people the origin of their mental content is a blur. Hence one needs the insight wisdom of meditation to get clear about this.


The more immediate response to remorse is to acknowledge any error, and refrain from actions that you see as contributing to that error. Then to cultivate the healing energies of good will.


However, it can also be the case that one feels ‘neurotically’ guilty – one experiences guilt based on a personality profile. One’s personality is shaped by relational causes and conditions, and if one’s upbringing and social conditioning is one of feeling unworthy and needing to work hard to win approval, the citta is starved of the good will that should give it a healthy shape. So one feels ‘at fault’ and ‘needing to be better’ in any relationship. In such an ego-tunnel, it’s easy to feel that ‘the fault is mine’ in any scenario, because the sense of ‘I am at fault’ is a shaping condition in one’s personality structure. 

Here again, the steady and deep practice of good will is needed. Allowing yourself to be as you are is good-will. This doesn’t mean that everything you do is OK, but that you are OK and can learn from errors rather than be burdened by them.



As I listen to your Dhamma teachings during the rains retreat the message is there is no self. But throughout daily activities it is difficult to remember this… .Is the self the personality, the tangled thread of karma? There remains confusion with giving & receiving Metta. 



I’d adjust your comment to say that not-self is not about denying the experience of selfhood (which is necessary for sane and functional life), but about recognising that that experience is of a psycho-somatic weave of perceptions, attitudes, intentions, and introspective images that are formulated in the citta. There is no solid entity there, no-one who is born and dies. But that weave needs to be purified (as it affects your own and others’ well-being); and the process of so doing untangles it. Then it becomes a flexible weave that supports responsibility. 


You’ll even find references to being accomplished with regard to self in the suttas: ‘one thing is very helpful for the arising of the Noble Eightfold Path. What one thing? Accomplishment in virtue … Accomplishment in desire … Accomplishment in self … Accomplishment in view … Accomplishment in diligence … Accomplishment in careful attention (S.45: 64-68 and 71). 

From this you can understand that your subjective sense needs to be skilfully engaged in order to fulfil the Path. Just don’t take your self personally!


Giving metta means first of all feeling that quality arise as a heart-energy, not just as a principle. It’s something that your citta can awaken to.  Feel touched by the goodwill of others whenever you notice or recollect it. Linger in that and the heart will gladden and start suffusing that energy. You can then bring people or aspects of your ‘self’ to mind.  Receiving it first is the key, because that means we open the ego-tunnel to let some light in. Then we experience a mutual world and metta is a natural energy flowing within that. It too is not-self.