Sunday 5 June 2016

Skin, Heart and Person

Skin is a tricky medium. On the one hand it helps to hold our insides tidily inside, and protects them from the elements. On the other it presents us as a wrapped-up package, an object in other people's gaze. And therein hangs a long tale. Of being seen as attractive or unattractive; of striving to look (and act) ‘right’; of being compartmentalized as black or white – and in general being sensed as 'other than me' in a process that has far-reaching effects. In daily life terms, this means that empathy can get lost, and tendencies towards ill-will, craving and fear encouraged.Unchecked, these tendencies then colour the human interactive world, and people get demonized on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity, or religion (etc.). 

Even more universal is the revelation that for most people, somewhere in the heart is the distinct impression, backed up by memories and narratives, that 'I'm not good enough, I'm unworthy, unattractive, the odd one out’ – and so on. Hence life gets driven by mistrust of others, fear of failure and of falling behind the mainstream –  and is propelled by an urge to acquire the wrappings, the clothes and cultural style of the majority. Or of the leaders and the models. So we try to become an approved object; even though we can only truly be subjects and need to be related to as such. Moreover, even though the leaders and the models look like they’re succeeding, they have to keep hitting the success button – and sooner or later fail: the secret blemishes get revealed; addictions and phobias deepen; and egotistical drives push the person into substance abuse, disastrous relationships or self-harming. The denial of mutual subjectivity – that we are all equally a 'me', with differing perspectives, but having similar needs, problems and skills – means that respect and harmony are replaced by personal isolation and a mask of conformity. In such a scenario, few people fully inhabit their true skin, and no-one feels safe for long.

Being wrapped in ‘white’ skin seems normal to me. It doesn't prevent me from suffering – but more from my own ignorance than from the fear or hostility of others. So I don't directly experience, and easily forget, the kind of prejudice that people of darker skin suffer from when they go shopping (and are seen as suspected thieves) or stroll down a street (and are seen as potential troublemakers). In the USA, for example, dark skin hugely heightens the possibility that you will receive abuse, or even get shot, while doing something like that. Here the terminology sets people apart: for example as African-American, or Asian-American – in other words as less than, or a sub-set of the 'normal' American. Who by inference is white. A lot can come into play because of that hyphen alone: the need to prove oneself in order to get accepted; and hence the over-performance that screws people up. Either that or the cynicism that ‘whatever I do I won't be accepted, so why bother?’  Out of such defeatism runs the path of substance abuse and apathy that wrecks entire cultures – witness the plight of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals.

So skin can be a big issue. And it's not just a matter of pigmentation. There are other significant wrappings around a heart-mind (citta) that is naturally shared and sharing. There's the gender wrapping, the sexual orientation wrapping, the money wrapping, the national wrapping, the clothes and style wrapping – to name a few. If you are wrapped in a minority (or ‘lesser’) kind of skin, you are second-rate. It's therefore hardly surprising that this affects the heart, the crucial domain of well-being and liberation. When the view that ‘there’s something wrong with me’ is a haunting presence, the heart-mind never really settles. Sure, one may be able to apply oneself and even quieten it from time to time, but subconsciously the spiritual quest becomes an attempt to either clean or deny the self-image.

With the aim of bringing around the release from suffering, Dhamma practice often emphasizes letting go of the personal. That is, if we put aside the clutter of our everyday events, we can go deeply inwards and access transcendent freedom. In this transpersonal ‘ultimate truth’, we go beyond identity with all its issues; here one's wrappings don’t pertain and one can feel free. However, emphasis on the transpersonal alone skips or trivializes how we arise in the interactive world of other people and social responsibilities. People with second-rate wrappings are particularly let down by ultimate truth: having been advised that personal issues are a mere convention and to be abandoned in the spiritual quest, they experience shame about still having any: ‘Truth is above race, appearance and social position; they shouldn't mean anything to me.’ (And it’s easy enough, maybe, to not take one’s social position personally when you’re white, male and middle-class.) And even for those who can deepen into transpersonal depths in a meditation retreat, there remains the issue of the personal, and social, domain. If one leaves the retreat ‘skinless’, how do we meet the world with its get-ahead messages and performance drives? How do we integrate the Dhamma into an individual and interactive life? We’ll probably just grab the nearest set of wrappings – those of a slightly improved, and more ethically-attuned, self – and return to the old attitudes, anxieties and self-image. It's the nature of the ‘person-pack’ (sakkaya). But to transcend this, one has to reveal and resolve personal issues at their basis rather than ‘get over’ them. ‘No transcendence without including the personal’ is a useful motto. 

Consequently in the fullness of Dhamma-practice, depths and surface have to be both respected; the clarity and resources of the transpersonal have to embrace and address the issues of the personal so that we can wear, lightly but clearly, a skin that fits our own hearts. To elaborate on this: the Buddha's right view presents experience not in terms of a person having an experience, but of a conditioned experience that gives rise to the sense of being a person. In brief, conditions – such as customs, attitudes, inclinations, fears, blind spots and psychological strengths – create the sense of a person and of a world in which they function. These conditions frame and shape the basis of experience – which is ‘citta’, deep mind, awareness or heart.  Citta is the ‘knowing’ and the affective-responsive aspect of mind-consciousness: without that there can be no experience. That is, experience requires an experiencer, and that experiencer is awareness, citta. 

For the average person, this awareness is conditioned into a ‘heart-mind’ that carries ‘old kamma’ in terms of forces (sankhāra) that impart a subjective tint to what is seen, heard, touched or thought (etc.) To give a practical example: when a builder looks at a house he sees the structure and materials, when an architect does the same she sees the design, but a thief notices the doors, windows and locks. They carry the old kamma of their respective conditioning; for any individual, the conditioned citta is the foundation of their personal world.  And of course of their identity: as citta arises into the world of sense-contact, it does so with a conditioned inference that this is happening, not just to an eye, an ear a body or a brain, but to a ‘me’. So the self arises; and with that comes the program of acquiring a set of responses to avoid pain and gain safety and happiness for ‘me’. (Although none of these give guaranteed or long-term results.)

In the social context, citta learns pleasure-pain responses in terms of interactions with other people – signals of approval and disapproval, of isolation or mutuality. These are internalized as perceptions and reactions. So what amount to moments of experience form life-messages with their attitudes, strategies, virtues and phobias – and these get set as the blueprint of our personhood. In other words, a personality is largely established by the heart's impressions of other people, by what they say I am, and by how I am supposed to be with them. A shaky and shifting territory.

All this may seem to be psychological stuff, stored in our brains, and a matter for psychotherapy. But when one reviews the Buddha’s instructions, a standard presentation is of using the body to affect the citta. For example one popular teaching module is that of the four ‘territories of mindfulness’ (satipatthāna). (M.10) This presentation links body to physical and mental feeling, to the states that citta is affected by, and to the phenomena (dhammā) that either hinder or release the citta. A similar thread runs through the four tetrads of instructions on mindfulness of breathing. In both these teachings, one begins with body and through fully accessing that, goes on to clear and release the citta. As the suttas have it: ‘One thing leads to realization of the fruit of knowledge and liberation … Mindfulness of the body.’ (A 1, 582) And: ‘It is in just this fathom-long body with its perceptions and mind that I make known the arising of the world, the ceasing of the world, and the way leading to the ceasing of the world.’ (S 1, 2, 26) How is that? Clearly the world is not located in the liver or in the pain in my back.

Well, in terms of the body, there is a domain of which we can be more fully aware that has a direct connection to the citta and to the world that it creates. This is what I term the ‘somatic domain’: it roughly corresponds to the messages and sensitivities of our nervous systems. Through developing awareness and skill in this area, what is first sensed as tension, ease or numbness can be revealed as underlying programs of fear, of passion, of affection and of grief. So, in the somatic domain we can access the signals of citta as they play out in our bodies – in other words, we can get to the foundation of what wraps us, and rewire it.

This process is made possible by the resonant and sympathetic properties of citta. That is, its subjective sense can tell us how things feel to me. We can also sense how we’re being affected through attuning to our somatic domain, and sustain a wise and sympathetic response right there, without having to go into rehashing the self-image, the stories, the justifications, defences or shrugs. In the somatic domain we can sense our citta programs wordlessly, and, through a developed empathic response, let them move on. Where? ‘Mindfulness exercises authority over all dhamma… Their consummation is nibbāna.’(A 10,58) So the nibbāna, the complete undoing of life-messages, comes not through me changing how I am, but through a process whereby this tension (etc.) is held mindfully. That is, it is experienced not as who I am, but as a condition that I can relate to and cease to be created by. 

Herein the crucial piece is to relax the learnt responses of fluster and shielding that occur around fear, shame, rage or grief, and just be empathically present with them in the body. And this is where meditative skill is needed: both to access the depths where citta unfolds into a measureless presence, and to hold the personal realm with mindfulness and compassion. The first of these processes refers to accessing the most fundamental citta sense, which is that of being present, of awareness, the Refuge. All this can take place in the somatic domain, where Refuge is the grounded and unconstricted state of fundamental safety. By being mindful of that, the gift of awareness can be settled into. The beauty of this is that awareness is a given, it’s involuntary, it’s not deserved or gained.  Citta at this level doesn’t react; it doesn’t know how to blame, deflect, shrug or give up.

The second process is about integrating this safe unhindered awareness into an individual form. This can be done through widening one's aware focus in a broad and slow inquiry: ‘What does it feel like to be me, at this moment?’ Then holding whatever is sensed there with empathy and interest – as it actually is, not through fixing it or otherwise substituting it for a more positive state. This is true empathy, the initial response of citta as it rises into the domain of relative truth. It is the initial sense that ‘I am here’ before the person-pack gets inked in and built upon, but carrying its blueprints. This represents a border zone of the mind, an affective sense that is often rushed through as the mind gets into ‘how I was, what others think, the future and what to do about all this.’ It's a zone that can also be moved through in the opposite direction as the mind releases into more measureless depths. This zone is however a vital area for either really getting to the point of what keeps me busy and restless, or of arising from the transcendent into a personal form that has been released from afflictive programs. In other words, this very broad, non-specific and somatic sense of being in a separate form with a ‘world’ around it is a domain that can be lingered in. And it can be suffused with goodwill: ‘May there be well-being here,’ rather than rushed through with ‘I should do something.’ In this domain we can develop new skin.

Such psychological skin forms boundaries around what I will take in, and what I will not accept in terms of the behaviour of others. It respects personal privacy, and gives us the right to choose the time and place to open up – or not. Instead of feeling defined by the projections of others, or of defining others in terms of one’s own projections, we can feel the safe and intimate somatic domain and not get thrown out into such views. Through knowing the Refuge, we know what we’re not; and through integrating that into our individuality, we know how to relate to that. With clarity, groundedness and empathy, of course.