6 August 2006

Equanimity and Numbness

Equanimity is the goal of Buddhist meditation. We quell desires, and cultivate a kind of detachment, until we can respond similarly to experiences of triumph and tragedy.

Isn't this just a state of numbness? Why would we want to narrow the range of our emotional responses to the world around us? The inability to feel is depression. Numbness is death. 

I don't pretend to have a full resolution of this paradox, because I have not fully experienced the state of Buddhist equanimity, and  have only dabbled in traditional Buddhist teachings.  But here is my personal understanding of the state toward which my spiritual practice is directed: 

My mind contains multiple voices, multiple responses and tendencies, desires and aversions that sometimes reinforce each other but often conflict.  At the center of this ‘society of mind’ is the perspective most closely identified as myself.  Freud spoke of the ‘ego’, which, in a healthy individual, takes charge and maintains active control over inner impulses and desires.  A more modern word from psychology is the ‘metacommunicator’, whose job it is to have good judgment.  I describe and evaluates the voices within, and arbitrate their conflicts.

The radical notion (which I identify with Buddhism) is that this most essential self is strictly a witness.  In my meditation practice and in my life, I seek to strengthen the witness and identify with the witness as self.  The witness does not arbitrate and does not make judgment, but remains scrupulously neutral. 

Within me, emotions are permitted their full scope, are even encouraged to expand their expression.  The one who is feeling can be experiencing deep grief, weeping and sobbing, while the one who is watching cultures tenderness and compassion toward the feeling self.  There may be rage or jealousy within me; there may be pride or celebration, loving connection or egotistical aloofness.  It is the task of the witness to govern this nation not by judgment that elevates some voices at the expense of others, but by cultivating powers of neutral observation, by studying the society of mind and assuring freedom of expression for all its actors.

Essential to the practice is a trust that, without 'my' intervention, the voices personalities within me will interact and do battle and negotiate to an appropriate resolution.

– Josh Mitteldorf

5 August 2006

“Thoughts surge up ceaselessly and disturb the primal repose of the mind. So long continued has this process become, in the history of man, that we come to regard it as our normal state. To draw the mind back into a calm rest, much more so to be without thoughts, we regard as an abnormal condition. We have taken a tradition for a truth, and it would be well to inquire how far these values of ours are justified.”

~ Paul Brunton, The Secret Path p 67

4 August 2006

“One cup, in which everything is swirled back to the color of the sea and the sky. Imagine it.

A shining cup, surely! In the moment in which there is no wind over your shoulder you stare down into it and there you are, your own darling face, your own eyes. And the wind, not thinking of you, just passes by.”

– Mary Oliver

3 August 2006

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” 

~ H D Thoreau

2 August 2006

“So convenient a thing is it to be reasonable creatures, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” – Ben Franklin

Perhaps the most pernicious way in which we reshape our view of social situations for personal comfort is when we imagine that our own view of the world is ‘objective’ while others see the world through the distortions of their own ideologies.  Jonathan Haidt’s label for this very human tendency is ‘naïve realism’. 

“If I could nominate one candidate for ‘biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony’, it would be naïve realism, because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are.  Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest.”
(from Chapter 4 of Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis

To his credit, Haidt does not offer a bromide, but counsels the difficult, ongoing task of self-examination.  

“Naïve realism gives us a world full of good and evil, and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice about hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them…

“The first step is to see this as a game and stop taking it so seriously…

The ability to find fault with oneself  “is also the key to overcoming the hypocrisy and judgmentalism that damage so many valuable relationships.   The instant you see some contribution you made to a conflict, your anger softens…”

Learning about the workings of our own minds, “we can step out of the ancient game of social manipulation and enter into a game of our own choosing.”

1 August 2006

Hope is the struggle of the soul, breaking loose from what is perishable, and attesting her eternity”

Herman Melville, born this day in 1819

31 July 2006

“Infinite patience produces immediate results”

– from A Course in Miracles