Monday, 8 September 2014

Sin, Sex and the Inner Tyrant

I’ve just returned from teaching a retreat in Ireland: a pleasant weekend attended by a good number of people. The theme, one that I’ve touched on before, was ‘Unseating the Inner Tyrant’. You can probably guess, but if you’re in doubt about what I’m referring to … Do you ever find yourself dominated by a chain of thought that tells you that you’re not good enough, and don’t deserve much?  Are you convinced that other people look down on you? Does your mind recite memories of things you did wrong in dramatic detail? Do you find that when you admire someone, you simultaneously feel unworthy of them? Or that, although you really ought to be a winner and help the world, you’re never going to achieve anything? That voice, that attitude, is the Tyrant. So is there such a thing as freedom, peace and ease – or was the Buddha telling lies?

Freedom is an aspiration that many people can resonate with; as a practice it means meeting and overcoming our inner tyrannies – whatever their urgings. There are many, often contradictory: along with preoccupations with duties and obligations, and the sense that ‘I should calm down’,  comes the challenge of meeting the feelings of inadequacy and guilt that lock the door of the heart. ‘I’m never going to get clear, or be happy. There’s something wrong with me. I’m like this because I messed up.’ Herein we take Angulimala, the serial killer who became an arahant, as our patron saint. As I outlined in my posting of August 2013,[]he can certainly be said to have messed up; and yet his murdering didn’t amount to an insurmountable obstacle to awakening. Yes, according to the Conch Blower sutta (Connected Discourses, 42.8) what sticks bad actions to us aren’t the actions themselves, but their stickiness. Action based on clinging – to sense-data, impulses, views and the notion of self – is sticky and leaves residues. So we have to live not so much with what we’ve done, as with what we haven’t resolved, what is left as ‘I am this’. And a major obstacle to resolving the past is denial (which shields a notional self) and guilt (which labels it as sinful): both of these reactions fail to investigate and resolve the emotions and psychologies that constitute that apparent self. Remorse and conscience on the other hand relate to actions, not a notional self. They are healthy and have to be responded to; firstly by an acknowledgement that is free from justification and judgement; secondly by the avowal to understand any error and refrain from such actions in the future; and thirdly by widening and softening the mind with kindness, compassion, appreciative gladness and equanimity to all concerned – including this heart and mind. Not an easy process, but one that one can train in.

So the Buddha’s message is that it’s not justice that sets things straight, but clarity and empathy. To look steadily at how your deeds, words and attitudes feel, and then to align your intentions to the good heart. Then it’s apparent that the first important thing to set straight is the ‘black and white’, the hard line that cuts off our empathy. Because when empathy is cut, there is no harm that a human will not to do to another. On the other hand when there is empathy, we are enriched with the great heart of tolerance, love and compassion. That heart isn’t strait-jacketed by obligation; it’s a joy and a refuge from bitterness, guilt and greed.  So with perceived wrong-doings, the empathic heart is willing to be open and emotionally present without reactions. That’s the first necessary step; then comes the feeling, and the remorse of ‘this was not worthy of me’, and then the compassion that embraces impulses with understanding and so stands beyond them.

Sometimes guilt is imprinted not so much by what one has done as by social shame or stigma. That feeling of being barred from fellowship generates an Inner Tyrant: the Judge. Another socially-oriented drive orients around what one should be and do. I call this the Benevolent Dictator: the missionary obligation to be responsible and help the world (from one’s own viewpoint). In both Judge and Dictator, loaded perceptions of self and other give rise to compulsive drives, while the core assumptions remain uninvestigated. The Judge/Dictator may be hidden under the mechanism of perfectionism (I have to get it absolutely right); or under goal-obsession (I have to get to the good thing in the future because I can’t accept how I am right now); or with missionary zeal (I have to fix other people, and I know and possess exactly what they need); or along with the adulation of others (who’re so much better than I am).  If all else fails, criticism of oneself and others feeds a compulsive drive of becoming (bhava). ‘If only I was this; if only he wasn’t like that – then I’d feel satisfied’ says the Inner Tyrant. It believes in unexplored assumptions and fantasy projections; and it turns the potential for an aware and compassionate life into the weight of a debt that is never paid off. Because the Tyrant is  never satisfied with or appreciative of what has been done. In fact the Inner Tyrant finds satisfaction, appreciation and contentment dangerous, indolent and naive: ‘Don’t you see what a mess you/they/ the world is in! You can’t sit around being content for the rest of your life!’

Take note of the tyrannical voice: ‘never’, ‘always’ ,‘the rest of your life’ and ‘everyone thinks’ are standard references. The Tyrant always presents perceptions and impressions as solid truth, and based on that operates in terms of black and white realities, prophesies and judgements. Justice and ‘what they/I deserve’ are common slogans, messages that blaze through the minds with such conviction that we never examine their logic – and how they sour us. Once infected by the Tyrant, the mind can justify any action; particularly a wrathful response to perceived evil. Hence Crusades, missions, jihads, witch-hunts, pogroms, torture and jails. The Tyrant often masquerades as the Just God. Justice? It’s too often a mask for self-interest and revenge.

Crippling though the Inner Tyrant is, it acquires even more strength when it is supported by, or morphs into, the Outer Tyrant of political or religious repression. This has been the case in Ireland where the tyrant of British domination was succeeded by the Catholic Church.  The Church at first offered a religious identity (tyrants offer security and a stable identity) but also condemned as sinful all sexual activity apart from marital sex without contraception and without abortion. Not that condemnation has ever stopped sexuality; rather it has driven the sex drive underground – only to have it resurface as clandestine sex, or abuse of one kind or another. All of which, it transpires, has been practised, denied and swept under the carpet by bishops, priests, monks and nuns.  An estimated one in four of the population of Ireland have been affected by sexual abuse. Along with child-abuse, perhaps the grimmest accounts are of the ‘Magdalenes’, unmarried teenage girls who became pregnant and were then incarcerated in convents in ‘magdalene laundries’ as unpaid washerwomen for the rest of their lives. It’s bad enough when the Outer Tyrant is the member of another nation; jaw-dropping when American police can shoot unarmed black fellow-citizens dead in the street; almost beyond belief that parents can condemn their own children to an exile in which they will be treated like scum for the rest of their lives. But it’s not unbelievable, and certainly not uniquely Irish (Magdalene laundries existed in Britain and Australia) – but when the Outer and Inner Tyrants merge under the aegis of Divine Will, justification is beyond question. Men get slaughtered and incarcerated as a ‘threat’ or ‘the enemy’ of course, but if the deviation is in anything sexual which involves a woman, it is she, even if she is the victim, who will feel God’s wrath. In any religion. A brother will murder the sister whose crime was to be raped, parents cast out their daughter who associates with a member of the wrong caste or family, and so on. All justifiable to cleanse the family’s name.

It may seem impossible to lose empathy around such a central and shared feature of being human as sexual desire – how else did we all get here? – but the Tyrant can bring that around. Because passion is a threat to order, both internal and external. Euripides’ drama The Bacchae plays on this: Dionysus, the god of revels, ecstasy and wine appears as a youth in Thebes and is promptly thrown in jail by the town’s ‘Law and Order’ ruler, Pentheus. So our sympathies naturally incline towards Dionysus. But as the play moves on, Dionysus breaks free and entices Pentheus to witness the revels of the god’s female devotees. In so doing, Pentheus falls out of a tree – whereupon his mother, in ecstatic trance, mistakes him for a lion and rips his head off. So as the play closes, the sympathies of the audience shift again. The dilemma that the dramatist presents is between repression and passion: repression is repugnant and eventually ineffectual, but passion is dangerous. And they belong together. True enough, males of most species regularly fight and kill each other when in the grip of sexual desire, and it is on account of projected desire that women get repressed, abused and locked up. 

Throughout history, people have attempted to channel sexual desire into socially manageable containers – none of which are innately secure.  No Tyrant, however Divine, can manage and contain feeling; repression is inadequate to the task, and sublimation into sport and entertainment only a stop-gap measure. It’s certainly difficult enough to both meet and stand beyond that which we dislike, but even more tricky when it comes to desire and lust. But that’s what’s required: a skilful channelling entails acknowledgement of the luminous power of desire, and its ability to flood the body and distort the mind. ‘Standing beyond’ comes through restraint, then empathy: respect for one’s own body, heart and mind and that of another. This takes contemplative skill. Whereas a tyrant will either repress desire or justify it, a meditator can soften and widen the energy channels in the body and transfer that energy into the heart.  As a process, that means acknowledging desire, dropping the imagery, focusing on the body energy and softening and widening that energy with breathing.

Clearly (to me), celibacy offers many benefits in terms of supporting simplicity, curtailing competition, jealousy, infidelity, performance anxiety and sexual abuse, but celibacy is a choice. It’s not a compulsion based on aversion to nature. It has to be accompanied by a huge affirmation of the human ability to include and transcend nature. Without that understanding and contemplative skill, celibacy becomes arid; it doesn’t ripen into a fullness of being. 

Meditation offers a resolution of the conundrum of passion. All compulsions grab the heart and deprive us of freedom; without meditation, people just use the Tyrant of blame, repression and punishment to ward off the Tyrant of compulsive desire. When we're thrown between these two forces, we lose self-respect, empathy and clear understanding. But when we operate in terms of present-moment experience, and a clear and empathic approach to meeting the energies of fear, rage and desire as they happen to us, then there’s a way out of the tyranny. The energy of desire can then be held and correctly channelled, not into prophesies or assumptions of what others think or God wills, but into the full fruition of the heart.