Friday, April 21, 2006

On Meditating and (Still) Being an Insufferable Asshole: Robert Augustus Masters on Integral Naked

The Integral Naked discussion boards are buzzing about the dialogue between Robert Augustus Masters and Stuart Davis. I've never read Masters' work. I'll be rectifying that error in due course.

One of my favorite points was when Masters talked about how common it if for spiritual folk to cover up pre-rational problems with trans-rational mannerisms. In other words, we slather spiritual "special sauce" over incidents and attitudes - anger, resentment, selfishness - that have crystallized in our consciousness. We tell ourselves that we're good and selfless and full and love and light. These ideas of ourselves are not realities, but conceptions we use to beat down the knowledge of what's actually inside our minds. It affords us the convenience of pretending we're healed without ever actually healing.

What Masters proposes is radical: not freedom from one's phenomenal self, but freedom through intimacy. By knowing and interacting deeply both with others and with ourselves, we learn to look compassionately upon our traits - some of which may be like "mineral deposits" that are embedded in us for life - and relate to them skillfully.

Does this mean meditation is useless? Not from my experience. If anything, this dialog emphasizes - albeit indirectly - the importance of meditation.

Stuart Davis' point is accurate: Spiritual practitioners in the West are waking up to the fact that you can meditate for 30 years and still be an asshole. But recent events have taught me that meditation is an invaluable backdrop for this moment-by-moment intimacy that Masters and Davis rightly covet. Meditation has taught me that I am not my thoughts, feelings, and desires by giving me the tools to stand back from them and observe their ebb and flow. This stillness of mind that I'm developing has helped me disidentify with my mind so that I can work with it.

What's more, my daily meditation has brought my shadow self to the fore, so that I can deal with that and heal from it as well. I've learned over the past several weeks that I have a dark, angry side to my self that manifests at odd moments. It's a side that feels constantly oppressed by conditions and circumstances, that wants to lash out violently at everyone and everything in its path. It's the part of me that doesn't want to be held responsible for the choices it's made. Instead of owning up, it projects those choices onto others, and revels in being the outraged martyr. If this shadow had its way, I would either wallow in hedonistic pleasure until my life was left in tatters around my feet - or (more likely) snap some evening, down a shitload of pills, and drive my car off the nearest high bridge.

It's not that this shadow has never emerged before. It's that I'm unable to ignore it any longer. Previously I would feel such shame and regret over its emergence that I would shove it back down under whatever rock of my subconscious it had scurried out from under. That's harder to do when you're working with your self every moment of every day. It's like swatting flies off of the elephant in your living room, while pretending that the elephant doesn't exist.

Without the foundation of my daily meditation work, this shadow would be much harder to work with. The knowledge I've gained about the nature of my own mind through meditation is what has given me the courage to engage it.

Ken Wilber said at a recent talk with Andrew Cohen that meditation changes "the fundamental fabric of the cosmos". I don't doubt it. Meditation graces me with the realization that everything - both outer and inner - is dependent arising. I may have created it through my choices; some of it may have been impressed upon me by my parents, my friends, my culture; some of it I may have created uncnsciously, never realizing what subtle conclusions and limitations I was weaving with the yarn of my neural net. But none of it is "me" in any fundamental sense. It's all phenomenal, unbidden, the cumulative effect of a million causes both monumental and miniature.

When I first started on my spiritual path many years ago, I assumed that my mind was infinitely flexible, and being happy was merely a matter of going from room to room in the palace of my mind and evicting the lousiest of its tenants. These days, I'm more in tune with Masters' view. My goal is to use techniques from psychology and spirituality to develop habits of thought and action that manage and, ultimately, transcend these ingrained habits. They may still be with me when I die , but in a weak, neutered form.

What is Shantideva's first piece of advice for dealing with emotions such as anger and pride in the Bodhicaryavatara?
When the urge arises in the mind
to feelings of desire and wrathful hate -
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.
In other words - STOP! Don''t feed the kleshas. Instead, step back and observe them impartially, neither fueling nor condemning these feelings. The ability to do this well - to step back and avoid getting hooked - comes from meditation, from the direct knowledge that I am not identical to my body, my thoughts, my feelings, or my desires. There is a greater Me that transcends dependent arising, is unconditional, diamond-like, sovereign. Get in touch with that Self, if even at a surface level, if even for only half a minute. Tap into that solemnity and stillness, not to avoid my "bad" emotions, but to face them impartially and without judgment. Only then can I decide on the most skillful course of action for addressing them.

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