Archives for the month of: April, 2012

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

–Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Note: This is part 3 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

Working With the Self Moment by Moment

Sitting at a coffee shop paying attention to my experience, I notice that my attention is resting behind my eyes; I am the observer. Now, a contraction in my chest and the thought “did they see me looking at them?” I don’t like being that self. Another moment passes and I am now the one listening to the conversation at the table behind me. So it goes moment by moment, “I” become a different part of my experience…

The experience described above is like seeing the individual frames of a movie. If we slow down the projector just enough we can notice that in fact we are watching a fast changing series of still images. The mind seamlessly translates those still frames into one continuous moving image. Similarly, the mind takes all those individual moments of identification with self-thoughts, with memories or with bodily sensations and translates them into one “phantom” experience. This phantom is what we imagine ourselves to be.

Mindful attention slows down the projector, allowing us to notice those individual moments as they scroll by one by one. This is a first step in piercing the illusion of an abiding self and the realization that my idea of who I am is in constant flux. It may not be easy to constantly keep up this practice. Fortunately, there is a sensation we can use as a reminder – the sensation of clinging otherwise known as the ‘self-contraction’.

The act of clinging is often accompanied by the somatic experience of a contraction around the heart center. We may cling to a story about ourselves, or to a fear of losing a part of ourselves. In my experience this clinging is common to many instances of holding onto a rigid sense of self, and supports the belief in this “phantom” core self. If we start looking at these moments of clinging, or contraction, more clearly, noticing when they arise and when they fade away, we may start to unravel this deeper layer of self and open up to a more fluid way of being.


We’ve looked at different ways that the experience of the self manifests in our lives. Starting with the personal sense of self, or the Ego, and the interpersonal sense of self, we saw how those parts of the psyche can be helpful as we interact with the world around us and also how they become a hindrance. We then moved on the Witness and looked at two ways to use the experience of witnessing to move towards greater freedom. Next, we got a taste of Eastern theories of self, or Atman. Finally we looked at working with the moment-to-moment experience of the self to see how we can find freedom in every moment.

It is important to remember that our goal is not to destroy the self or kill the ego (although the ego may feel that way sometimes). Rather, we are trying to reduce clinging, to create more space and to allow a more fluid engagement with our moment-to-moment experience.


Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

The Witness
Looking closely I can notice the experience that I am the one looking through my eyes; I am the one listening or thinking; I am the one all of this is happening to. I feel calm and comforted by this connection. In a world of continuously changing phenomenon I rest, safely held, in the solidity of the witness. What a relief!

The experience of the Observer, also called The Witness or sometimes The One Who Knows is exactly as its name implies, an experience of some entity sensing the world through my physical faculties. The Witness is ever-present; according to some traditions it continues even through dreams and deep sleep. Often the Ego identifies with the experience of witnessing and enhances it with an aura of agency. I’ll describe how to recognize this egoic clinging in a later section.

Just as Ego is neither good nor bad, there is nothing inherently wrong with the experience of witnessing. The problem begins when we identify with it. This ongoing process of identification supports the illusion of separateness. It keeps us apart from the world and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of experience, which is ever changing and empty of inherent solidity. Challenging this identification, therefore, can be liberating.

One way to begin unraveling the apparent solidity of the observer is by simply resting in the experience of witnessing itself. When embodying this experience as completely as possible we give up the illusion of solidity and see reality in its luminous, ever changing, ever present existence. We also begin to notice that those sensations we so often split off from the rest of the field of experience are an integral part of the field, just like every other sensation.

Another way of working with the witness is asking the question: “Who is having this experience?” By continually asking ourselves this question we can notice that the observer is not as solid as we imagine it to be. We see it moving around in the body, shifting between different senses, and yet the mind insistently claims that all those different experiences are the same thing. Can that be true?


No discussion of the concept of self would be complete without discussing “true-self” and “not-self”. These two views of the self originated in ancient India and are now becoming more influential in the West mainly though the influence of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. In this section I will introduce these two perspectives in the hope that this will serve as a starting point for further exploration and as a background for exploring the sensations of self as described in the next section.

The sanskrit term Atman (sanskrit: self, breath) as used in several ancient traditions from India refers to the true self, the soul or the spirit that animates all life. Some Hindu traditions point to the feeling “I Am,” a realization of being, of presence, that goes beyond the body and beyond mere concepts. This experience, it is taught, is contact with Atman, one’s true self.

Non-Dual traditions such as Advaita Vedanta (advaita, sanskrit: not-two) develop this teaching further to the realization that the practitioner is one with everything, that there is no separation between Atman, the true-self, and Brahman or Godhead, the essential creative force, Divine, All. Since Atman and Brahman are not two but one, it follows that our essential nature is oneness with everything.

The Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self (Sanskrit: Anatman, Pali: Anatta) came about in direct reference to the search for Atman that dominated the spiritual environment in India during the Buddha’s time. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk and scholar, explains that the Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self is not to be understood as a doctrine or dogma but as a strategy to reduce suffering. Through recognizing that any phenomenon that arises in consciousness is not worthy of being clung to as self, we dis-identify with all phenomena, thereby moving beyond suffering.

Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series based on a short paper I submitted for my Psychology of Spiritual Awakening class. I’ll update the links here as I post the rest of the piece, hopefully I’ll get through all of it in a week or two. For now, here’s a brief overview:

  1. Introduction & Psychological Ideas of Self (this post)
  2. The Witness & Atman
  3. Working With the Experience of Self

At some point in our development the mind identifies a part of our overall experience as special. This aspect of experience is split off from the rest and is given the special role of the self. This sense of self becomes an almost constant companion to us manifesting in different ways, sometimes helpful, sometimes less so. In this paper I will explore some of those manifestations, how we can understand them in terms of eastern and Western theories of self and how can we work with them to bring greater freedom.

This terrain is both wide and deep. Yogis, mystics, philosophers and psychologists have been at work, mapping this terrain for over two thousand years. I do not expect to cover it all in this paper but I hope this serves as an introduction and offers a few practical ways to approach this experience. I will start with aspects of the self that may be easier for the reader to relate to. Most readers are probably familiar to some degree with the personal self (Ego) and the interpersonal self (Persona, Super-ego). I will then move on to the sense of the Observer or the Witness that is described in many traditions. Next, I’ll introduce some views of the self that originate in the ancient East and finally I’ll describe a way of working with the moment-to-moment experience of the self that I’ve found helpful in developing a more flexible sense of self.

Psychological Ideas of Self
The personal I, often called the Ego, serves two main functions and can be experienced in both of these functions.

  1. Maintaining my own view of myself. This is the ongoing story constructed in my mind about who I am, what I do, where I come from and where I am heading.
  2. The agent. This is the part of the mind that is busy planning and acting in the world.

The Ego is very helpful in moving through the world; without it I would be quite lost; however, clinging to the this part of the psyche too strongly can be limiting. When identified with the Ego we often find ourselves in opposition to world, threatened by those who oppose our views or unwilling to share our resources with those around us. Instead of seeing the ways in which we are similar, related and connected to everyone else, we notice our separateness and therefore our basic loneliness.

If we pay close attention we can become aware of the continuity of the self over time. Looking back on my memories, there is the sense that all of this has happened to one person – me. My memories from high school and my hopes and plans for the future have all happened and will happen to this same person. This is another face of the Ego, which allows me to feel continuity in my personal experience and to plan for a better future. At the same time, it helps perpetuate old self-views, opinions and hurts. It may be helpful to question this experience: where is the person that read the previous sentence? Am I really the same person I was when I was 5 years old?

The interpersonal I is composed of Jung’s persona and Freud’s super-ego. This is the part of the psyche concerned with the way in which I function in society and the way I’m seen in society. This is the part of me that is concerned with belonging to the in-group. Another way the interpersonal self is experienced is as the judgmental voice, warning me of violating the group’s unwritten rules. This aspect of the psyche is helpful in navigating the complex relationships we find ourselves in, be it with family, at work or with friends. Just as it includes one group it excludes everyone who is not a part of this in-group. Those seen as outsiders become easy to ignore or even vilify, leaving us with a narrow view of humanity and often justifying cliquish behavior, violence, or even war.

According to Jung the Persona1 (the mask, the way we present ourselves to others) is collective in nature. The Persona is the Ego’s attempt to approach society’s notion of the ideal person. A large part of Jung’s individuation process involves becoming aware of and then letting go of the constructions of the Persona, making room for more authentic self-expression.

So far we’ve been exploring manifestations of the self that are well studied in Western psychology but there are manifestations of the self that Western psychology did does not pay much attention. In exploring these parts of the self, especially our relationship to them, there is the possibility of great freedom. This possibility has been explored at great depth in many different Eastern traditions. In the next section I will present that possibility and how we may experience it.

1 Jung C.G. (1972) Two Essays of Analytical Psychology. Collected Works vol. 7 Bollingen Series.

“Man, if indeed thou knowest what thou doest, thou art blessed; but if thou knowest not, thou art cursed and a transgressor of the law.” (Apocryphal insertion at Luke 6:4, quoted by Hitchcock p. 185)

“It is equally a grave mistake to think that it is enough to gain some understanding of the images and the knowledge can here make a halt. Insight into them must be converted in to an ethical obligation.” (MDR quoted by Hitchcock p. 13)

The two quotes above may be enough to form the basis of an entire spiritual practice. On the one hand, we are encouraged to bring conscious awareness to every moment of our life, to clearly see the intention behind every action. This awareness, however, is not enough. It lacks moral guidance which we find in the second quote. We must take whatever understanding we receive as moral guidance and hold ourselves up to this new standard. Continuous consciousness is how we hold ourselves up to our own standards, thereby creating a virtuous cycle.

It is interesting to see these two ideas play out in my own life. For example in bringing consciousness to the act of giving. There are times when I do so out of generosity and other times when I do so out of a feeling of obligation, wanting to be seen in a certain light or feeling guilty about my internal conflicts regarding generosity. If I fail to bring consciousness to this act it becomes hard to see the real intention behind it. I may miss the fact that I am not acting out of right intention and therefore am, in fact, supporting a habit that is unhelpful (e.g. acting out of guilt). When I do bring awareness to this action, I can notice the internal conflict that is happening and new ethical commitment arises: to be compassionate with myself when working with difficult habits and to respect my internal conflicts even when they appear to be at cross purposes with who I “should” be.

I, by myself, often lapse into a lack of consciousness of my motivations or even my actions for example when dealing with shadow aspects of my personality. In these cases I find it helpful to surround myself by friends who will help in holding me up to my own best intentions. Their presence alone may be enough to remind me of who it is I want to be. At other times, clearer and more direct feedback is necessary. Even this reliance on community comes out of the above quotes. Having seen my own limitations, I’ve placed myself in an environment that will help me stay true to my values and intentions even when that is challenging.

Another important aspect of environment is that it can serve to push me out of my low-energy, “stable equilibrium” into states that are further and further from equilibrium. I consider CIIS to be exactly such an environment and getting out of my comfort zone was a main reason for choosing this path. I’m already seeing the effects of this injection of energy into my system. One of the interesting side-effect of living closer to a point of unstable equilibrium is that it becomes harder to foresee what shape the future might take. For me, this is a good chance to learn how to simply enjoy the ride.

“Deep inside, we still know that the aliveness is in the risking of ourselves in some real way with an irreversible outcome. Only out of the risking comes the joy.” (The Web of the Universe, John Hitchcock)

It is curious to see Jung, as a scientist, criticizing the rational mind:

“things have gone rapidly downhill since the Age of Enlightenment, for, once this petty reasoning mind, which cannot endure any paradoxes, is awakened, no sermon on earth can keep it down.” (C.G. Jung, Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy, p. 16)

This criticism on the part of Jung arises out of Jung’s unique point of view: he is looking forwards at the same time as he looks backwards. Looking forwards, Jung sees the potential of the rational mind to understand the psyche in ways that were never possible before. Looking backwards, he sees that have lost as much as we’ve gained: The capacity to hold the mystery that religious paradox points at.

For quite a while I was laboring with a “insufficiently cultivated mind” and as sure of myself as possible. I saw religious dogma as “manifestly absurd” therefore completely empty of value. Slowly I was able to accept that religion may have some value, although only for others, not for myself. Over the years, my point of view shifted even further.

I was initially attracted to Western occult traditions as those seemed to embrace the paradox head on. Modern incarnations of these traditions seem to accept the reality of the psyche wholeheartedly and all that comes with that. This seemed to fit my understanding at the time however I was unwilling to completely commit (surrender) to such a drastic path. My rational mind still required a hold on a rational world, safe from paradox.

I found a compromise in Buddhism where I was able to slowly approach this new world. Starting, as I did, in Theravadan Buddhism I was not overwhelmed by religious imagery which allowed me to find my own way in negotiating my relationship with this part of the psyche. Within this framework I started to tackle the “new task”: “to lift this still undeveloped mind step by step to a higher level” and to acquire “at least some inkling of the scope of paradoxical truth.”

I think that today, I may finally have exactly an inkling of the scope of this paradoxical truth. One way that I see this kind of paradox manifesting in my life is in my relationship with meaning. Looking back at this particular exploration I can see the time where I was attracted to one extreme (meaning is all-important) or another (meaning is an illusion). I can also see the resolution of this conflict – accepting the paradox – learning to hold meaning as both important and contingent.

Returning to the larger picture, I believe that rather than having suffered a loss of connection with the soul as part of the Enlightenment, humanity has actually gained the potential for a greater connection than ever before. Being able to step beyond what is conventionally accepted, we are able to see the paradox in its fulness and choose to ignore its existence or engage with it consciously.

Donald Sandner describes an appreciation for the meaning one discovers through the shamanic lens:

“Why does this new shamanism seem so important to the modern world? I think it is because it brings relief to the modern mind, which is always so focused on some minutes details of outer reality. Shamanism un-focuses the mind, loosens the ego from its rigid outward ties, and allows it to descend in the other, inward reality of the core psyche.” (The Sacred Heritage: The Influence of Shamanism on Analytical Psychology)

This loosening of the mind, allows us to unwind the grip which the rational meaning-making process tends to have on the modern mind. Through that unwinding we can open up to the bigger picture which includes nature, myth and symbols. Doing so from a modern perspective requires that we hold this other view with the same light touch. In my own experience, I’ve learned to bring this kind of balance to my study of the Tarot.

After breaking through my initial resistance, I discovered that I can find wisdom in the Tarot, although the source of this wisdom does not lie in the cards. I can use the rich symbology in one card to study the effects of a particular aspect (archetype or spirit) in my life. The card’s associated meanings help explore that aspect from multiple dimensions. I can also look at my projections regarding the card and discover shadow aspects of myself. I may even be able to use the card to summon that archetype and communicate with it. 

When using a full spread of cards, I look at the interactions between different symbols and meanings. I find that if I hold on too strongly to a particular way of reading the cards, the meaning gets lost. If, however, I can allow the mind to rest on the cards, move between the different connotations offered by the complexity of the spread (much like described by Sandner, above) I often find that meaning arises of its own, usually in the form of a story. Through this story, I can look at a situation in my life in a way that was not obvious to me before. This allows for a new way of engaging with the situation and therefore new outcomes may arise that were not possible before.

In order to be able to work with the Tarot I had to suspend a part of myself that craves stability and clarity. Through this work and later through my meditation practice as well, I realized that there is no such stability to be found. As a reaction to being confronted with that truth, I tried to create the same stability through denying all meaning. This devotion to emptiness was comforting for a while but is eventually unsatisfying. I’m now learning to accept multiple levels or layers of meaning, none of which is always true or always satisfying. In this world view there is room for scientific truth and there is also room for the shaman’s spirit world. Jungian psychology helps me in seeing the connection between them and my Buddhist practice helps me hold them both lightly.

Found at the Albany BulbIn the Kundalini Yoga lectures, Jung continues in his role as physician for the Western world. In this role, Jung takes it upon himself to, first and foremost, understand the condition of Western society and through this understanding perhaps offer a course of treatment. Throughout his research Jung uses different works of religious, mystical or mythic nature as lenses through which to view his own culture. These various lenses afford him different points of view and therefore unmask issues that cannot be seen clearly when viewed from inside the culture itself.

In a similar way I find myself looking at maps of consciousness and of the spiritual path, looking for correlations between different maps and connections to my own experience. These comparisons have been useful to me in different way. Finding correlations between my personal experience and what has been described before has been supportive, especially in difficult times. Similarly, knowing what may be about to come can help me prepare and accept it when it does. Last, from looking at the various maps, I’ve learned about myself and about who I can be – what hidden potentials lie in me that I’ve not explored yet.

Lately two such systems that have been on my mind are the Buddhist process of awakening and Jung’s process of individuation. There are a several maps that describe the progress of awakening (for example Zen’s Ox Herding Pictures and the Theravadan Progress of Insight described in Buddhaghosa’s Vissuddhimagga), a few of which I’ve used over the last couple of years. More recently, I’m finding Jung’s exploration of Individuation through various lenses to be enlightening as well.

I find this comparison to be particularly relevant at this point in my practice as my movement towards transcendence (awakening) seems to have taken a second seat and instead I find myself focused more on wholeness (individuation). Some similarities come up, for example Jung’s descriptions of ‘letting things happen’ and ‘observing objectively how a fragment of fantasy develops’ in his commentary to Secret of the Golden Flower are similar to Eastern practices of non-attachment and mindfulness. Some striking differences come up as well, for example, Jung’s claim that the crown chakra, sahasrara, is “merely a philosophical concept with no substance to us whatever; it is beyond any possible experience.” (p. 57)

Statements such as the one above can be found in many of Jung’s studies of Eastern spirituality. They may demonstrate a misunderstanding on Jung’s part but they also seem to point to Jung’s focus on living a life that is more consciously in touch with one’s internal world. Jung saw Western civilization as disconnected from the internal life of the soul and therefore his focus was more on the instincts that move us and the archetypes that guide us. As I am naturally drawn toward living in a world of concepts and transcendence, Jung’s focus on the lower chakras (up to the heart chakra) may be a useful pointer for my own practice as well.