“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
For weekly insight and inspiration — check out my newsletter!
One day, we woke up on this great earth. No rules, no explanation — just a deep drive to keep on living. The wilderness outside was mirrored by the wilderness within. The early philosophers gave name to the battle raging on inside of us. Plato divided our soul into three parts: appetite, reason and spirit. The appetite is a short-term beast, craving what is immediate. Reason is capable of deeper, more abstract long-term thought. While the spirit, called thumos — is the socio-cultural mitigating force between these opposites. The totality of our being is a warzone. We are being polarized from within, and must always be vigilant that neither reason, nor the appetite wins out. If ever we hope to find our place in this world, we must delve into the depths of our being.
Iwant to present an integrated account of self-actualization. Two opposing, yet radically successful pathways to self-transformation are Buddhism and Psychotherapy. The Buddhist path places the utmost emphasis on intrapsychic processes, and the mechanics behind the thoughts that we think. Conversely, psychoanalysis places emphasis primarily on the content of our mind, and the relationships between thoughts. An integrated and comprehensive account of the human experience needs incorporate both of these elements. The processes of our mind cannot manifest without content to manipulate. The structural patterns of cognition, as investigated so thoroughly by Buddhism require activation through phenomenal content. Content and process inform each other, and their dynamic interplay is what leads to transcendence. I will present a threefold account of this transformational human process, outlining each stage and highlighting their deep interdependence. I will begin in the realm of mental content. This is the foundational stage, whereby a cohesive self-structure and properly differentiated ego is formed. Understanding the parameters and limitations of human embodiment are key. Jungian psychoanalysis and philosophy will be used to examine the way in which we naturally couple our being with the environment. After this, we move from the content of thought to the process of thinking. I will explore this movement from propositional knowing to the stage of perspectival wisdom. The Prajnaparamita and Sattipathana sutras will help characterize this stage of the path, as emptiness and impermanence become salient to us. There is an untethering from our stable self-structure, and the boundaries of duality begin to blur. Finally, we return back to the content of our mind and enter a stage of empowered actualization. A reappraisal of the mental content that was once grappled with occurs, and with an intuitive understanding of mental processes, optimal engagement with the world is now possible.
“But your god-self dwells not alone in your being. Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man, But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the mist searching for its own awakening” — Khalil Gibran
We begin by taking the world at face value; in Zen this is the stage where mountains are mountains. Before trying to transcend our condition, we need to fully and properly understand it. Zen patriarch Dogen writes in his famous work entitled Genjo Koan:
“Now if a bird of a fish tried to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place” (Dogen, 2011, pg.25).
To fully understand our element, we need to investigate both the psychological and physiological qualities of our human embodiment. Carl Jung provides an ideal framework through which to understand both of these facets. Most models of the human psyche divide the mind into conscious and unconscious sections. The phenomena that we cognitively grapple with, our immediate memory and so on belong to our conscious mind. Yet in every moment, we are bombarded with extraordinary amounts information, and not all of it is admitted into our awareness. The rest goes into our personal unconscious. Only images and symbols exist here, no words or logical relations. Carl Jung agreed with all of this, but came up with the revolutionary notion of a Collective Unconscious. This is a construct that all of humanity shares, regardless of experience. It contains two interrelated aspects: The Archetypes and The Instincts. The former is psychological and the latter is physiological. Both of these features do not depend on our personal experience, but are inherent within us since birth. It is our archaic programming inherited from our ancestors. Beginning with our physicality, we are all acutely aware of our drives towards hunger, sex and creativity. Without intending it, many of our days appear to be driven by these forces. I believe it is important not only to tend to these instincts, but also to explore their energetic modalities. Owning our physiology and the energies that dominate it is not often talked about. In order to truly understand the instincts, we must investigate the quality of that which pushes us to seek food, intimacy and creative outlets. Understand the full range of energetic experience: fast, binge, deprive, indulge, repress and let go. While psychoanalysis deals with the psychological aspect of the collective unconscious, we must also understand the instincts. This also helps to ground us such that we do not become too disillusioned in the latter more mystical stages of self-development. Moving to the psyche, Jung says that the archetypes are unlearned ways of experiencing phenomena. What this means is that the sensory input that we receive appears to naturally fall into structural patterns, and these are consistent across civilizations. The brave hero, the nurturing mother and lawful father are all archetypes. Our intuitive notion that one day we will be whole and complete is actually informed by our archetype of The Self. Our ideal partner is a manifestation of our anima/animus archetype, which represent the interplay of feminine and masculine qualities. Submission, domination, tenderness, aggression and other pairs of opposites are encapsulated by the anima and animus. The aspects ourselves that we hid from the world, everything that we repress due to fear of rejection belongs to our Shadow archetype. Importantly, Jung says that we can never know these archetypes in their raw form, but that we meet them in the world through projection. This is a process whereby we perceive the content of our unconscious instantiated in someone or something external to us. Projection is natural, but it does not give us an accurate representation of the world. We must learn to withdraw our projections from the world and see reality as it naturally is. Jung also identifies what are known as Complexes. These are constellations or groupings of mental contents that manifest in response to certain stimuli. With all of this in mind, the methodology of psychotherapy is clearly laid out: reveal your complexes, integrate your shadow and understand the interplay between your anima and animus. After this, we can be said to fully understand the inner workings of our mind. The basic way we treat the content of our minds is fully understood, and as our ego acts in the world we now understand why it acts as it does. However, to lead a truly empowered life, we cannot simply adhere to every whim of our ego. All of this knowledge about archetypes and instincts is propositional. Actually using this knowledge to insight a deep epistemic shift within ourselves requires some kind of practice. In Zen Buddhism, there is a famous series of 10 pictograms that depict the journey to enlightenment. The poem underneath the first pictorgram finishes in the following way:
“You discover that ego’s attempt to create an ideal environment is unsatisfactory” (Trungpa, 2001, pg.74).
No matter how many true propositions we obtain about how our mind manages and sorts its content, this does not stop us from falling victim to it. We seek increased agency in this automatic process, yet we are offered no path to attaining it.
Everything that grounds us in our human embodiment must slowly be let go. This is where Buddhism enters a complete system of self-actualization. Our bodily sensations and conscious mind are both intimate to us, and now they are understood. The shift from intrapsychic content to intrapsychic process can begin. In Zen, this is the stage where mountains are not mountains. Everything you once knew and took for granted begins to change. However, since we deeply understand our physicality, and have a firm self-structure, such an exploration can safely occur. This stage of the journey starts with awareness. The Buddhist Mahasattipatthana Sutta is centered around the mechanics of establishing this penetrating awareness. A prerequisite to all that follows is that one can maintain unwavering concertation and focus on an object of choice: be it breath, sensation or thoughts. This stage of the journey has us shifting from the realm of propositional knowledge to something enacted. In Buddhism, it is taught that there are three fundamental marks of existence. These are suffering, no-self and impermanence. Deep understanding of impermanence naturally leads to understanding of the other two marks. As prescribed in the Sutta, impermanence can be directly observed by focusing attention on our thoughts. At this stage we are no longer worried about the archetypes and how they manifest, nor are we concerned about the content of our thoughts at all. Simply sitting still, with an equanimous mind, we are meant to notice the following three things: “One dwells observing the phenomenon of arising, the phenomenon of passing away, and the phenomenon of arising and passing away” (Goenka, 1998, pg.12). We notice that regardless of the content, thoughts seem to arise out of nowhere, and then pass away, returning to the void from whence they came. The third prompt is somewhat mysterious, but it points to the deepest part of this practice. The nature of all experiential phenomena, both physical sensations and mental content, is to arise and pass away. There is no abiding, simply a constant ebb and flow of changing experiencing. This understanding of impermanence naturally leads to an understanding of suffering. We want things to last, we want to grasp onto reality and keep it. Since this is simply not the nature of existence, we are bound to be disappointed. Realization of no-self follows from here. Since everything is in flux, nothing has an enduring, individual essence. We reify these processes, especially when it comes to our understanding of the self. Our false identification with a concrete self is in fact a reification of five interdependent processes, known as the five skandhas. They are form, cognition, sensation, consciousness and conditioned tendencies. Conditioned tendencies are our unconscious reactions to phenomena, reminiscent of Jung’s notion of a complex. However, there is a path through which we can remove our conditioned tendencies, known as sankharas in Sanskrit. It goes hand in hand with an equanimous understanding of impermanence. According to tradition, bodily sensation is the contact point between mind and body. Complexes, or sankharas only arise in response to stimuli. As such, if we are able to experience a stimulus and remain non-reactive to it, we will weaken the respective complex. Our ability to remain non-reactive is informed by our increasingly deep understanding that the self is no different than anything else, it is an empty process. However, we fall into the habitual tendency of assigning a concrete identity to it. To this identity we ascribe hopes, dreams, and trauma. Yet, deep down the self cannot support these projections because it insubstantial and ephemeral. Thus, the content that Jung so painstakingly analyzed lacks anywhere to stick. The structural form of our experiences he so carefully teased out is empty. In the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutta it is famously said: “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form” (Tsultrim, 1999, p.5). This is the saving grace, so that we do not fall into Nihilism. Just as the archetypes can only be instantiated by conscious content, so too emptiness can only manifest itself through form. There is no bare void at the fundamental level of reality, emptiness is itselfempty of inherent existence. We are only acquainted with emptiness and the constructed nature of the world by investigating form. Similarly, form can only exist because it is inherently empty.
The next stage is to connect both conventional knowledge of the structural patterns of ideas, and the deeper perspective you gain on the underlying mechanics of reality. This manifests as an empowered, participatory actualization. Returning to our galactic analogy, the line of apsides is the direct link between levels both far and near. The dynamical interaction of these levels is the final stage of transformation. It is not as if realizing the insubstantial nature of thoughts removes you from their influence in any way, it only gives you a new way to interface with them. You are now empowered in that you understand the mechanics behind your self-structure and your sankharas. Using this knowledge, you can now create complexes. True understanding of the dynamical nature of the self, and of the way it functions through archetypes means you are now the master of your domain. Joining the previous two stages gives you maximal agency in the construction of yourself. You are just as dynamical as the cosmos, no longer victim of your unconscious, nor deluded about your underlying nature. You can easily let go of habits, let go of your ego and mind and just sit still. Sit still and realize who you are. Not realize in the conventional sense of grasping a concept, or adding a piece of knowledge to your library of facts. Realize with your being, a movement of existence into existence. You can do whatever situations demand of you, since you have no hangups. You are at the crossroads of your archaic self and celestial self, and can flow between them as needed. You now live on a level in which you can shift awareness from content to process and use this understanding to inform your participation in the world. This connection represents a total synthetic integration of every level of your being. From a first-person perspective, it is hard to imagine a state in which more agency is attainable. You are no longer affected by your unconscious as if it is yours, because you understand there is no stable self for it abide. Yet, you don’t disregard it as shallow and unimportant, you see its place in the causal nexus of your body and the world and treat it accordingly. This is the final stage, and a quote from famed Tibetologist Evans-Wentz is the perfect way to finish. It captures the essence of this type of existence, one in which the line of apsides has been found, walked and lived.
“Having evolved out of the torpid state of passive development, the human chrysalis thus becomes a Conqueror of Existence”
Image Credit: James White — https://signalnoise.com/info
D., & Nishiari, B. (2011). Dogens Genjo Koan: Three commentaries. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
Evans-Wents, W.Y. (2002). Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. New Delhi: Mushiram Manoharlai
Goenka, S. (1998). Mahasatipatthana Sutta. Igatpuri: Vipassana Research Institute.
Reps, P. (1957). Zen flesh, Zen bones. Tokyo: C.E. Tuttle.
Tsultrim, G. T. (1999). The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. Tushita Meditation Center.
Trungpa, C. (2001). Mudra: Early Poems and Songs. Boston: Shambhala.