Monday, 7 June 2010

Who We Really Are

This was in Kyoto. The two ladies are maiko, apprentice geisha, who offer their services as entertainers and evening companions (to those who can afford it). I was visiting Japan with a fellow-monk, and at the sight of this strange confluence of paired males and females wearing iconic robes/dress, someone took a photo.

I’ve never been that comfortable with self-presentation, but I’ve learned to get used to being photographed. After all it’s not me that’s in the frame, but the monk. We can’t avoid presentation, so maybe the safest way is to make it clear that this is what it is, and abide with the integrity to live out what it refers to. That means taking on the responsibility of carrying such an iconic form, and of living within its outlines. As a theme for Dhamma-practice, it also highlights and challenges one’s personal inclinations. In my novitiate, the doubt I had about taking on bhikkhu life was not about celibacy or not handling money, but more to do with a loss of individual freedom. Such as having the possibility of taking a walk in the park with my dog if I felt like it. Or of having a lie-in and reading the papers in bed, if I so chose. Or of hanging out with a few buddies playing music in the evening. Of being me-or what had become me anyway. And what’s the harm in that? Fortunately, one isn’t expected to make a life-time commitment to bhikkhu training, and I thought the experience, notably the meditation, would do me some good. I might even get enlightened, and then disrobe, and then take an enlightened walk in the park with my dog…

At first, being a monk isn’t that demanding in terms of presentation. As a junior monk, one isn’t in the spotlight, and having one’s robe fall off, eating chocolate with unrestrained glee, and making verbal gaffes are met with a few sighs by one’s elders and smiles from the benevolent laity. However the criteria get more exacting as the years go by. As one becomes a spiritual representative, one’s facial expression is scrutinized for signs of the disapproval that, as the projection of people’s relentless super-egos, one must surely feel for all beings. Humorous asides are recorded and examined for signs of disillusionment, repressed sexual desires or misanthropy. Twist your neck to relieve a painful cramp and whoever your slightly strained face points towards will feel condemned, perhaps for a lifetime. (In Thailand it’s the mention of numbers that gets noted: a sure sign that the Ajahn is dropping a hint as to the winning number in the national lottery).

As a Dhamma-practice then, presentation then becomes an exercise in relational mindfulness. And even though the relationship is centred on traditional and impersonal qualities of faith and aspiration, the skill is to fill that with the personal warmth, calm and understanding that direct application to Dhamma has brought to light.

Personality and presentation. For a samana (or any Dhamma-teacher), if we don’t act in accordance with what we represent there is a weakening and even a betrayal of the faith that others place in us. Obviously one’s moral standards must be reliable - but what about those personal interests and talents? What does one do with one’s historical, individual personality? I’d say it’s a long process, not cosmetic surgery. And it’s a deep process, one that involves handling the kamma that has made me ‘who I am.’ In the crucible of awareness, there can then be a transmutation of all those inclinations, a gathering and filtering of those energies and know-how, in which nothing valid is lost, nothing unique and truly joyful has to be abandoned. It is perhaps the most attractive accomplishment of realized beings - that their warmth, stability and wit can be directed towards liberation. Because the rich humanity of a selfless person is a lasting inspiration, even when the texts run dry and the meditation gets stuck.

There’s a lot of confusion around about being a person. The word itself comes from ‘persona’ which in Roman times was the mask that an actor wore to represent the hero he was enacting; it was the means of ‘sounding through’ the character of that part. A persona was certainly not a representation of who the actor thought and felt he was. Personality, as each individual’s definitive character - which we’d call ‘ego’ - dates from the late 18th century. No wonder the scriptures make no mention of the personality of the Buddha or his disciples - it just wasn’t a reference. Our confusion around this ‘definitive character’ is to make it definitive, a statement of who I am, rather than a collection of programs that best meet the world. We imagine ego to either be an essential and lasting self, or to be connected to it. The ‘right’ (understandable, popular) ego-personality can make people vote for it, and open the door to fame and power. However it costs. For each individual who holds personality as a true self, as a motivating and essential psychological centre, there is pressure. This self expects freedom of expression; it needs to be original enough to stand out from the crowd, but not so different that it confuses people. If it makes the right impressions, all well and good- if it doesn’t, there’s a problem. Yet no matter how well it goes down, does such an ego-bound self give it’s owner any real assurance? The big names often teeter on the brink of anxiety, depression, drug abuse and suicide. Supporting a public personality is a demanding task.

Yet everyone has a personality. It’s a natural development of mental behaviours that facilitates our lives as social humans. When we’re born, we’re born with the potential for its development because personality- how we look and present ourselves - does the vital job of acting as an interface. It’s an interactive display that summarises what behaviour or performance you, the other, can expect from it. But in a populous society, the criteria for performance and behaviour get more exacting and the personal self becomes highly stressed: if you don’t do good (fun, efficient, sexy) enough, you aren’t good enough. This stress is the dis-ease that receives due attention in spiritual circles.

One theme that comes out of attention is that of being true to yourself, or of knowing who you really are, beneath or within the personality. It’s an approach that’s aimed at authenticity; at presenting an interface that most accurately aligns itself to what is happening in the mind. For that, you have to both be in touch with your ‘inner life’ and be prepared to stand by it as you present it. There’s something worthy in that. After all, if you can’t bring it out, shouldn’t you discard or shift what’s there? However, it can rightly be argued that a lot of social interaction is based more on convenience than about being aligned to truth; about getting through the day of functions with as least snagging and conflict as possible. In many of the workaday meetings we have, personal authenticity is less important than keeping your act together. And in the wide sphere of interactions in the workaday world, superficiality is important: get on with the play of events, don’t get bogged down in depth of presence. So to what extent is it appropriate to present one’s inner life?

Furthermore we can also consider whether one’s emotional and psychological profile as if it is of a higher or truer order than one’s surface presentation. What if, as the Buddha suggested, all that deeper, inner stuff is also conditioned and subject to stress, and not a true self at all? So when we come to Buddhist practice, the quest to know who we really are meets a few major challenges. First of all, the Buddha didn’t teach anyone to know who they really were and then to align their personality accordingly. His emphasis was to know stress, pressure and suffering and to eliminate that. One of the results of doing just that is that the personal dynamic shifts by itself: through mindful enquiry into stress and its cessation, one’s behaviour, disposition and energies change. So the approach differs from the ‘true self’ perspective in that it is these dynamic elements of self - moods, energies and inclinations - that occupy the focus of Buddhist introspection rather than a quest for a unitary picture of ‘this is what I am.’ In fact any notion of, or search for my true self biases the enquiry. Attention is applied with an angle: one takes up an attitude of ‘this is what I am, or need to be, or am not ashamed of being.’ This may have some healing effects, but that attitude contains a pressure; that there’s something other than wisdom that must be brought out, protected or referred to for guidance. Furthermore, any sense of being that something requires its continuation in time - so what happens when we (apparently) die? Where does it go then? Back to the cosmic melting pot? Even more to the point, where, when and why did what I really am get into this changing and mortal show? If it chose to climb into the ring with struggle, sickness, ageing and death, ‘my true self’ wasn’t that smart, was it? Maybe one places the self on an epic stage: ‘There was something I needed to work out, and was meant to be in this lifetime.’ On the other hand, if there is a sublime presence that is here and accessible to me, but isn’t an identity - why call it a self in the first place? Why does it need to be labelled? Therefore, perhaps through seeing these pitfalls, the Buddha wouldn’t affirm identity as a goal of the path of liberation. He just taught a practice-path out of suffering – which includes the agitation that comes with conceiving of self. The practice-path itself will develop resources that come to light at the personal interface – actions and dispositions that aren’t bound by the fears and needs of the ego.

Well, that’s a relief. ‘So my messy old self is to be let go of; and maybe with some effort I could disband the whole thing.’ That’s the way Buddhist practice may seem, especially as heading the list of major ‘fetters,’ obstacles to enlightenment, is ‘personality view.’ This fetter flags the ‘superficialist’ tendency - the assumption that this sophisticated but programmed personality system is a real and lasting identity; something that you have to worry about or rely upon, or assume to be the lasting truth of another person. However, the way to check that view and inclination is not through denying, suppressing or being careless, but through handling and purifying the impulses, attitudes and energies that mould our personality. In other words, to know it for what it is, not to eliminate it. (After all it does a vital job.) For this reason, the Buddha advocated the skill of self-reference, of personal integrity, self-respect and skilful relationships with others. He emphatically didn’t teach self-annihilation.

The difference between identifying with a personality and handling it skilfully is an important one, something that meditators some times fail to grasp. On a long retreat that I taught a while ago, three practitioners had experiences that they equated with losing their sense of self. What this meant was that their sense of being in a shared context, or of connection to personal history, was highly reduced. For one of them this was source of concern and even distress, whilst the other two associated the experience with a state of realization, a glimpse or penetration into Nibbana. After all, ‘no-one in here and no-one out there’; no sense of being affected or interested in functions and identities, sounds like an experience that has left superficiality behind.

Although one of the three was rightly distressed by this sense of losing connection, it took a while for the other two, who had studied and practised Buddhism for a longer time, to recognize that their minds were losing balance. For these two, despite weeks of intense introspection, it was the disorientation in their behaviour, accompanied by fairly minor transgressions, that blew the whistle on the ‘non-self’ experience. In other words, the concerns of the personality level, of how we act and interact in the external world, sounded the wake-up call. Because that’s the other aspect of the Buddha’s teachings - Vinaya - a training in correct or appropriate behaviour. The realm and concerns of the personality are not to be abandoned; it’s just the making of a righteous, anxious or obsessive self out of it that is to be seen through as stressful, and consequently put aside.

One of the shortcomings of intensive retreat situations is that the emphasis on ‘going inwards,’ on being on your own and refraining from interaction, can displace the personality energies rather than purify them. That mode of experience may indeed lead to a magnification of the picture of what’s happening in the mind; and one might even experience unusually heightened states of calm or rapture or concentration. However, one is in danger of losing the balance between inner and outer, between self and other; a balance that is the essence of full (holistic) awareness. As the Buddha succinctly put it:

he abides contemplating mind-objects ( dhamma) internally, or..contemplating mind-objects externally, or..contemplating mind-objects both internally and externally. ( Satipatthana sutta, M.10)

If we keep angling the mind to disconnect from the interactive personality level ( an understandable way of side-stepping stress), it gets difficult to change the habit. And it’s also the case that disconnection, rather than awakening, is what some people want. But with that there’s no correct attention to one’s kamma, no proper handling and easing of its confused energies, and no complete integration. Such a practitioner attempts to cut off their kamma through avoidance, rather than transmute it through wise attention. Knowing this tendency, meditation masters may include work duties or discussion periods as part of the practice. Actually, in monastic life there are generally a whole range of duties - such as walking out on alms round, cleaning the monastery buildings and learning to chant together - that are a standard. One is also often living with a range of personalities some of whom one has no affinities for. Although this may not support my manifesting who I really am (because not everyone is interested) it does provide a practitioner with a rich source of mindful practice. We learn to stay in touch with a world of which we aren't the centre. So mindfulness has to be balanced internally, externally and at the interface where the sense of ‘self and other’ arises.

Of course in order to acquire that holistic awareness and balance, requires checking and moderating the connections with the social world. So how to not lose balance? It seems to me that this requires us to enquire into and mindfully cultivate what makes up our apparent self, including where it meets others. When you go to the source of it, what this self arises from a threefold basis: bodily presence ( being fully and attentively here) heart (the intelligence of empathy and response) and object discernment (how a thing appears to be, not how I feel about it). In brief, for mental consciousness to fully sense and organize experience into ‘me being in the world,’ takes body, heart and head. And whether we want to get out of the world or find our true place in it, first of all we have to know what that experience of ‘being in’ is about. If you try to cut off that experience, you get unbalanced, or even go crazy.

Bodily presence gets developed through bringing attention to posture - standing, sitting, and walking; a basis for meditation. This keeps grounding the mind in being here. And as the practice develops, it attunes us to the body’s intelligence - of which the sense of balance is the most apparent aspect. But along with comes an enhanced kinesthetic sense, that restores the body’s co-ordination, agility and sensitivity. These two alone give meditation a suitable ‘non-sensual’ pleasure that is yet fully embodied. I emphasize this intelligence in meditation practice because it is often lost - through propping the body on convenient surfaces, sitting passively in chairs and abandoning feet in favour of wheels, people lumber and lurch around, and get to live in their heads. Also, a lot of the emotional agitation that powers incessant thinking comes from not fully inhabiting where we are. So there is an ontological insecurity that throws everything out.

To counteract that insecurity, many people will rely on their heads. It’s a common inclination anyway, because the head tell us what to do, and societies in general are focused on the doing side of life, rather than the being/relating side. The thinking mind is the educated and valued job-winner; so I am the thinker, and the thinker tells me what to do, and how well I’m doing, and what I should have done etc. Which means pressure and restlessness - and pain if we get to feel how incessant thinking feels. Thus at a certain level of stress the reaction is to cut off thinking, by fair means or foul. And if I can’t do that, I cut off the heart. Hence the loss of joy, empathy and wholeness that ‘know your true self’ spirituality rightly sees as a source of suffering.

However, addressing the problem from a Buddhist perspective doesn’t require bringing in a true self, but is a matter of balancing the energies and intelligences of body, heart and head. To feel grounded in your body, so that there’s a source of calm. Further: through tuning in to the steady flow of the body’s in- and out-breathing, how we are gets to feel good. With a steady bodily presence to relate to, the heart sense doesn’t get wound up in its emotions, and how we are doesn’t solidify into who I really am. And this is good news. Because then there can be empathy with others rather than projections and reactions. We’re less needy and therefore less disappointed by other people being the way they are. There is presence, empathy and clear thinking, and they support each other. That’s enough. As for who I really am - let other people argue about that.