Monday, June 1, 2009

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart

Having spent years suffering high levels of emotional pain, Buddhism was naturally a possible solution. But the typical Western summary of its path as ‘giving up desire’ put me off: to give up desire struck me as to give up being human. Getting rid of emotions (desire) seemed to be just some sort of self-inflicted emotional lobotomy. Not for me.

Actually, that is a poor way to look at Buddhist psychology (and, I suspect, Taoist psychology). The issue is not about having emotions, the issue is what significance you give them. Stilling the mind, sceptically considering the mind’s chattering, allows you to develop the capacity to put all that emotional frothing in a much healthier context. There is what happened to us. Then there is how we react to, and manage, those happenings. You can only achieve emotional balance if you can rise about your emotions, if you can learn to see yourself as the vessel of your emotions, not their prisoner.

While down in the Latrobe Valley a few years ago, I bought at a newsagent in Moe Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness by psychiatrist Mark Epstein. The book is simply about Buddhism-as-psychology – as far as I can see, what it has to say is compatible with any religious tradition. I read it, and then re-read it. It did much to change my perspective and banish my pain: I was suffering an emptiness that I did not see as emptiness but as lack – in my case, a lack of intimate love and the deeper fear that lack was just. This book enabled me to see what I was suffering was emptiness, to embrace that emptiness and to have it no longer cause me pain. I feel whole; I feel more human, not less.
I am also much calmer, far fewer things irritate me, I laugh more. Situations of stress are much easier to handle. I have a pervasive feeling of triumph and a confidence that there is much more to discover.

Aspects of cognitive therapy have also been helpful – becoming aware of how easy it is to fall into negative feedback mental habits that are merely that – mental habits.

One of the things I like about Epstein’s book, and related works on Buddhist notions of mindfulness, is how it makes one sceptical and aware of one’s own mental patterns. My take is that I am against programming as such: I don’t want ‘better’ programming, I want, in a sense, no programming. Now, of course, you have to have reasoning processes that can be characterised as ‘programming’, but that is more operating means rather than operating instructions.

Reading Epstein’s book meant that Gurdjieff’s notion of the need to fight against sleep, the sleep of what the mind can do but normally doesn’t, made much more sense to me. (More on him here.) Though it seems to me Gurdjieff was fumbling towards much that was already in the Buddhist tradition.

(On Gurdjieff, Colin Wilson’s short biography is a good place to start. Wilson’s Rudolf Steiner: the Man and his Vision is a good antidote against grandiose posturing, and that sense and nonsense can be mixed up in the one person’s thought.)

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart is a clear, useful text for considering how our thoughts go.

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