Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Buddhism and Psychotherapy

For the last two years I’ve been waking up most mornings about two hours before I need to. The same thing happens each time. As I wake up a feeling of fear lodges in my chest. It takes on different shapes and qualities, sometimes being a ball and sometimes being a piercing point of fear. Very soon after the fear arises, I start anticipating the everyday events in the near future and repeatedly rehearse and plan what will occur. Sometimes I can redirect my attention away from the obsessive thinking and just focus on the sensation of fear in my chest. If I can sustain my attention on the fear long enough, and not be distracted by the obsessive thinking, I can actually fall back asleep, but usually not, as I don’t have the power of concentration to sustain my attention on the ball of fear. The sensation of fear is used like the breath is used in meditation practices, as an object of concentration.

I think what’s happening is that I’m getting a glimpse of how my personality gets reconstructed each day. As we fall into sleep we let go of our waking self and become our unconscious self or selves. Upon waking, during those initial moments, in the passage from dream and sleep to waking life, our waking personalities are reassembled. For me, fear is the foundation and on top of it is built my self and the “normal” thinking about the day that a lot of people do, although generally not so repetitively. It’s the thinking that keeps me awake, not the fear itself.

For some reason, a few days ago, I felt that redirecting my attention away from the obsessive worry and planning and back to the sensation of fear itself would be a good psycho-spiritual practice for me. The idea is that there is nothing to fear in the future that requires all that anticipation. If that’s the case then why do I think about it so much? Because the obsessive thinking serves as a distraction from something that was really feared in my past, the nature of which is encased in the ball of fear and unknown to me.

The very convincing false reality is that I have to think a lot about what I will be doing – getting places on time, saying the right things, doing this or that errand – in order to make my day go properly and not have any failures or catastrophes. The true reality is that all of this excessive thinking is unnecessary for good functioning and is a distraction from being connected to whatever feelings are lodged in the fear. The fear is about something that occurred in the past which I falsely imagine will occur again without hyper-vigilant thinking.

So to reconnect to the foundation of my false personality I need to redirect my attention away from the obsessive thinking and back to the proximate source of it which is the fear. When I do that and tell myself that there is nothing to fear in the future and that this is all old fears from long ago, I find the importance of thinking about the future event evaporates and the ball of fear loosens somewhat and releases a little energy into my arms and releases tension held in my back and neck. The ball of fear and its tendrils hold my torso and neck in place. This is the character armor that Wilhelm Reich described and the muscular armoring that Lowen and Pierrakos’ bioenegetics tries to release.

When I use to read stories of Eastern seekers getting spiritual practices from wise masters tailored to their unique needs, I wished that someone would give me the practice just right for me. This practice of interrupting my obsessive thinking and redirecting my attention to the sensation of fear is a unique combination of the Buddhist mindfulness technique guided by a psychoanalytic understanding of the mental-emotional processes at work in me. The mindfulness is used to realize what is occurring and to redirect my attention to what’s occurring in the present moment but guided by a psychological understanding of what I need to do to enhance emotional development.

I’ve had little revelations like this many times in the past and they typically are forgotten. They are convincing at the moment and one feels inspired for awhile, but then moods and thoughts and whole perspectives change and what seemed like “it”, loses its convincingness. So I’m trying to remember Gurdjieff’s understanding that we don’t remember ourselves, that we are really at sea in the ever changing thoughts, emotions and sensations that keep arising and passing away and that without establishing a fixed point of awareness – Gurdjieff’s master “I” – we are just machines or asleep; a concatenation that has no stable self, or aware center. In psychoanalytic terms, this would be how people mostly act out their unconscious issues, their lives determined by the other unconscious self that lives within them. In Buddhism, Gurdjieff and psychoanalysis there is the attempt to liberate ourselves from a conditioning of which we are not even aware by becoming conscious of the process by which our selves are continually being reproduced.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Buddhism vs. Psychotherapy

I was working on two essays on the Arab-Israeli conflict posted at www.integralworld.net and so couldn’t post here.

A friend reminded me of the difference between Buddhist practice as a mode of self-development and psychotherapy. In the last few years, there have been people and books who have tried to integrate the two, but there is a fundamental contradiction between the two. Buddhism is interested in the form of experience and psychotherapy is interested in the content of experience. I had noticed this in the early nineties and it was one reason (not the most important) that I stopped my regular Buddhist meditation practice.

I told my friend that a Buddhist teacher I saw recently probably has a deep experience of impermanence. Knowing that everything changes on deeper and deeper levels is one way to describe the Buddhist path. There is nothing to hold on to. No person, no thing, not even your self. All that we strive for and try to attain will disappear. I told my friend that if I could appreciate that I could stop being so concerned with being a somebody and avoiding being a nobody (which I described in the early posts on this blog). He suggested that you could know about impermanence and still not know your historical process – the succession of events and experiences that, when more deeply appreciated, ground you in your present life and guide you into your future. This is what Judaism and the Kabbalah would look to as a way to live a full life. The importance of “Tradition!” and the history of one’s people as encoded in The Book. Also, the history of one’s self as reconstructed and re-appreciated as done in psychoanalysis, also created by Jews, for the most part.

Two distinct ways of living and engaging life. On the one hand, the content of your life is simply one ever-changing story whose form can be plumbed to experience the nature of all things. On the other hand, the form of you life – the arising of thoughts, feelings and sensations – isn’t meaningful without understanding the unique content of your psyche and history.

Why do we choose one path over another?