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.  You don’t go to a monk to get a review of who’s who in the football world. Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with these interests, but they’re inappropriate to the aims and values of what is being presented.

The responsibility of carrying such an iconic form, and of living within its outlines is quite a challenge to the personality.  In my noviciate, the doubt I had about taking on bhikkhu life was not about celibacy or not handling money, but more to do with personal freedom. To go for a walk in the park with my dog if I felt like it. To have a lie-in and read the papers in bed, with breakfast, if I so chose. To hang out with a few buddies playing music in the evening. To be 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 scrutinised 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.  

Personality and presentation. For a samana, and a 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 meeting  the kamma that has made me ‘who I am.’ In the crucible of awareness, there can then be a transmutation of all those inclinations 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 realised beings – that their warmth, stability and wit can be directed towards liberation.  Because the living 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 tremendous fame and power.  Meanwhile for each individual who holds personality as a true self, as a motivating and essential psychological centre,  there is pressure. If self makes the right impressions and attracts, 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 anyone 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. 

And 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 as the criteria for performance and behaviour get exacting, 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 attention and consideration in spiritual circles. 

One theme that can come out of this is to be true to yourself, or to know 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, is all of one’s inner life that interesting, worth bringing out, or of a truer order than what’s on the surface? Maybe all that too is conditioned and subject to stress. And it can rightly be argued that a lot of social interaction isn’t supposed to be about mirroring one’s inner depth; it’s mostly about getting through the day of functions with as least snagging and conflict as possible.  ‘How are you?’ is mostly not a request for an in-depth analysis and presentation, but a gesture to facilitate superficial exchange.  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.  

Nevertheless, spiritual friendship is one of the major resources for development. In the Buddhist sense of the word, such a friendship isn’t aimed at validating our experience as true and essential, but at providing a context in which our inner life can be brought to light for our own inquiry.  Without such a relationship, we may not even know ourselves, and may get very disoriented and unbalanced.  But the aim of bringing all of the mind into the light isn’t to know who we are, but what we’re dealing with.

The quest to know who we really are is problematic. The Buddha didn’t teach anyone to know who they really were and then to align their personality with that. His emphasis was to know stress, pressure and suffering and to eliminate that; as a consequence one’s behaviour, disposition and energies do get transformed. Because it is the dynamic of moods, energies and inclinations that occupy the focus of Buddhist introspection rather than a quest for a unitary picture: ‘this is what I am.’  In fact, a search for or explanation of ‘what we really are’ obscures or freezes that ongoing dynamic by aiming to locate and capture certain elements. There is a bias in the how attention is applied: one takes up an attitude of ‘this is what I am, or need to be, or am not ashamed of being.’  And that attitude contains a pressure; that there’s something that must be expressed, brought out in relationship or protected.  Furthermore, any sense of being something requires the continuation of that something 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 or 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, ‘what I really am’ wasn’t that smart, was it? Or maybe, one places the self on an epic stage:  ‘There was something I needed to work out, was meant to be in this lifetime.’ In which case my fundamental self was incomplete – so how fundamental was it? On the other hand, if there is a sublime presence that is here and accessible to me, but isn’t a mortal 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 would not affirm identity as a goal of the path of liberation. He just taught a practice-path out of suffering, including the agitation that comes with conceiving of self.  Taking on that practice path will bring to light the resources that then present themselves at the personal interface – a persona that isn’t bound by the fears and needs of the ego.

So it may seem that ‘my messy old self can just be tolerated until I 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 is the assumption that the personality system is a real and lasting identity; and with practice that fetter is abandoned. However, the way to cut that fetter is not through denying, suppressing or being careless about the personality, but through handling and purifying the impulses, attitudes and energies that mould it. 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 large 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 an interactive context ( not that there’s much of that on a retreat), or of connection to personal history, was highly reduced.  For one of them this was source of concern and even distress, whilst  other two equated their lack of social integration or reference to their fellow practitioners experience with a state of realisation, a glimpse or penetration into nibbāna. 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 the superficial personal world behind. 

Although one of the three was rightly distressed, it took a while for the other two to recognise that their minds were losing balance.  They had actually been studying Buddhism and meditating for a longer time than the first person. And for them it wasn’t intense introspection, but eventually the disorientation in their behaviour, that showed them that their ‘non-self’ experience was a psychological malfunction.  In other words, the wake-up call came from the personality noticing that their interactions in the external world were distorted. Which validates the need for the other aspect of the Buddha’s teachings – Vinaya – a training in correct or appropriate behaviour.  So 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 all that 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 , or even would never have chosen to be with.  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. And it helps to keep people balanced and in touch.

So living the balance between personality and not-self requires us to inquire into and mindfully cultivate what makes up our personality, but in a way that absolves it from egotistical pressure and bias.  When you go to the source of it, ‘what I really am’ requires bodily presence, 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 organise 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 kinaesthetic sense, restoring the body’s co-ordination, agility and sensitivity. These two alone give meditation a suitable ‘non-sensual’ pleasure that is yet fully embodied. I emphasise 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.  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; and that cuts off joy, empathy and wholeness. 

However, correct practice is a matter of balancing the energies and intelligences of body, heart and head. You start with getting grounded in your body, so that there’s a source of calm. You know where you are. Then through tuning in to the steady flow of the body’s in- and out-breathing, how you are gets to feel good. With 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.  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.