Writing as catharsis

Mindfulness and shadows of the psyche

Posted in Philosophy, psychology by Lachlan R. Dale on May 17, 2014

(c) James Jean

On the importance of mindfulness

The human mind is a strange thing. The degree to which we are consciously aware-of, and involved-in the activities that make up our daily life can vary immensely.

For instance, some tasks can occupy our minds so completely that we can lose perception of time and awareness of our surroundings. This is the experience of ‘flow’; a psychological state observed by ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that represents the height of creative/mental immersion in an activity. This is the peak experience of a performing musician, or creating artist – a highly desirable and enjoyable state, and a testament to the joy of purposeful, conscious focus.

Alternatively, we can undertake other tasks in a purely automatic sense. Consider the experience of being lost in wandering thought while you undertake a mindless activity like brushing your teeth or walking to work.

It is as if we possess a robot that can take over our body to perform menial tasks. The robot is infinitely useful in some respects; it is able to provide us psychological relief from uninteresting or repeated activities. The risk is that, left unchecked, the robot can take over tasks that you would like to be (or should be) fully immersed in. You can see this in people whose have lost the ability to take joy in music or nature or family; their familiarity with something disables their conscious enjoyment, and their engagement becomes automated.

The real concern is that, should this condition develop to a sufficient degree, we could tune out of some of the seminal, joyous experiences of being human. I shudder to think of where this could lead — to an individual’s complete disconnection with the human race? The inability to feel empathy? To depression, existential woe and suicide? (I wrote about this nightmare scenario in ‘The Delusion of Separateness‘, which tries to understand nihilism as disconnection from the universe.)

How can we stop this robot from taking over and sucking the joy out of certain activities in our life? Well, we must monitor the robot, and influence or disable it when we want to increase our focused awareness on a task. The key here is mindfulness, which can loosely be explained as possessing an awareness of your psychological state, and being attentive to the world around you.

Mindfulness has been described as “being in the moment” – a state whereby the ‘robot’ is disabled to such an extent that we increase our receptivity to everyday reality, and are able to see the world with all the wonderment and intensity of a child. This capacity the poet values above all others, and represents the extreme end of a spectrum stretched between cold disconnection and overwhelming embrace of the universe.

This sort of self-reflection and awareness is highly valued by psychologists and many schools of Buddhism – and it’s easy to see why. By watching our thoughts we can better understand our shifts in mood; our psychological triggers; our strength or flaws in personality and habit; and give us a more accurate conception of how we appear and relate to other human beings. Through practise we can learn to de-escalate or avoid negative states of mind, and work towards gaining mastery over the self and our life.

In short, the training of self- and world-consciousness is a key to self-betterment, and to a more fulfilling life.

Sometimes I find myself wondering what level of self-awareness can be attributed to the ‘average’ human being and what the cost to society could be. I assume the average level of would be rather slight; and this is certainly no minor manner.

Whenever you see an individual lose control of themselves in a flight of anger, it is an indication that they are unaware of their emotional triggers, and are unable to step back, reflect and question whether their emotional response (and their behaviours thereafter) are actually valid or justified.

Such a human might lash out at a loved one, or belittle a friend out of their own psychological insecurity. If they lack that separateness from their immediate emotional responses, they will likely be unable to see that their own emotional reaction is unjustifiable. They tend to justify their actions in terms of their emotional reaction – “I hit you because you frustrated me. Why are you always frustrating me?” Of course, they never ask why they are getting frustrated. The emotional response is deified as a form of truth.

Sometimes I wonder if society could benefit from the roll out of exercises of mindfulness and self-reflection in schools

Perceiving shadows of the self

What is interesting about self-reflection is that even I (who I guess possesses a somewhat elevated capacity) can only perceive some of my psyche second-hand. Even to me psychological changes can appear as reflections or shadows. It is a truly bizarre and fascinating situation.

For instance, a few weekends ago I noticed a certain change in my mind. Having felt this undefinable sensation before, I instinctively knew I needed some quiet time alone – perferrably with a book – to help order, relax and clear my mind. When I was unable to do this for the following six hours, my psychological situation escalated. I then felt a very powerful drive to spend some extended time alone. I cancelled my plans for the evening and dedicated the rest of my day to playing music, reading, cooking and reflecting.

Now, at this point I was completely oblivious as to the cause of this psychological state, but, being a fairly reflective individual, I knew what was needed to help defuse this state.

It was only some days later that I began to identify the cause. I had noticed that my sense of cynicism was peaking; as was my frustration with broader humanity. Things that would usually mean nothing were starting to get to me. I was emotionally raw.

What opened up my awareness was observing the way I interacted with a few of my good friends — I behaved very distantly; and used stock, detached phrases to communicate with them. I didn’t particularly want to talk, and I certainly wasn’t in the headspace to open up my mind to them.

At this stage I knew something was wrong, and began searching my mind for the cause. I looked back on the past few days; on how I was feeling, what I was thinking, and how I interacted with friends and family. The experiences of that Saturday came back to me; and I – almost subconsciously – started making connections and began to assemble possible reasons for my state of mind.

The reasons are perhaps too personal to go into detail here, but let it suffice to say that a close family member is quite ill. I’ve had to confront their mortality – and in fact have had quite open discussions with them on this subject. I had thought that I was completely adjusted to this dynamic; but the psyche operates in strange and shadowy ways. It was not immediately apparent at how this had affected me.

There were other events too. Within the same fortnight a close friend had shared with me a difficult medical diagnosis. I had also had (positive) interactions with a few people who, though once close to me, I had fallen out with had not spoken to for years.

Surely all of these things can take a heavy emotional toll; and, as I am ever re-affirming, their psychological affects can be very difficult to directly divine.

What is even more interesting is that, as I became conscious of these psychological pressure – and spoke with a few friends about them – the pressure eased. I understood what was taking place, and began working through those issues. The mere identification of these dynamics was enough to greatly alleviate the suffering and emotional chaos they caused.

This roughly follows Jung’s treatment of neurosis; to bring sub-conscious fractures to the surface so that they might be resolved and integrated by the conscious self.

But that we can be such a mystery to ourselves is still a source of great wonder. We inhabit the shadowy work of the psyche; and should always strive to increase our awareness of what is taking place.

I have always had this great inward focus, and experiences like the one above constantly vindicate it, for how can we hope to relate to other people, or to change the world for the better if we lack this fundamental understanding of our own mind – let alone the minds of others?

The answer is poorly – and so once more the importance of reflection is reinforced.

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The delusion of separateness

Posted in Buddhism, Philosophy, Prose, psychology, Ranting and rambling, religion, Science, self-knowledge, Zen by Lachlan R. Dale on December 22, 2013
The Lotus by Nicholas Roerich

The Lotus by Nicholas Roerich

In this piece I hope to define what I consider to be the most useful philosophical perspective I hold. 

In my early twenties and late teens I struggled to reconcile the immense suffering found in conflict, war and genocide with the shallow aims and pervading sense of self-satisfaction I found amongst my peers. For me, the existential issue of large-scale suffering (the likes of the Rwandan massacre) pressed on my mind with intensity and regularity. I could not comprehend how so many seemed content to occupy their lives with trivialities in the face of such a moral challenge; did not their minds not seek to understand humanity and existence? Were they not hungrily searching for meaning too?

I was consumed with a desire to find out how to live a full, ethical and contented life. I observed many around me whose lives were in tatters – elders usually, who had awaken from the daze of their lives to find themselves locked in an unhappy marriage, surrounded by children they considered a burden, weighed down by debt, and damned to work the rest of their days in a monotonous, unfulfilling job. They were completely miserable but lacked the sufficient consciousness to identify and alleviate the source of their misery. Even if they could perceive the life-change their circumstances demanded, the strength or courage required would likely be too much for them. Instead, they resigned themselves to waging a bitter war of small miseries on their family, co-workers and friends (if they have any). These unhappy, twisted men poisoned those around them, and in their self-pity they wallowed.

But I digress. What is of importance is that I struggled heavily with the moral challenge posed by acts of genocide in the recent ‘civilised’ past. I was also baffled by people’s complete indifference to these atrocities (though the severe limitations of the average human’s psyche is far more familiar to me these days).

I struggled in part because my foundations were rotten. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and so had at least entertained the notion that God is essentially good; that he intervenes in our lives to mete our justice; that suffering is rare, and that unfairness is merely a mistake awaiting correction. It featured a sort of deluded optimism that left me completely unprepared to confront the true nature of the world.

Gladly, these days I feel as though this issue has been largely reconciled. At the very least I do feel like I am succeeding in living a contented life, and in spending my time and energy on things I consider meaningful. At this stage the threat of the total failure of my life is small (though the fear still lingers in the dark corners of my mind). I’ve tried to define exactly what it is I have gained since those early years.

Above all I have attained a significant amount of self-knowledge. What defined my life back then was a sense that I was somehow a stranger in the universe. I felt safe in my suburban home, but my attitude towards nature was largely that of contempt or indifference. I was possessed by a simple, egoistic delusion that arises when one lacks sufficient understanding about oneself and one’s relation to the universe. I believed (or somehow sensed) that I, as a conscious being, were somehow separate from – and not part of – the universe in which I existed. I felt outside of it – beyond it. Sure, I existed ‘within it’, but I was an alien. I lacked a sense of kinship with nature, and as a result I was possessed by an absurd feeling of entitlement. As far as I was concerned the natural world was there for exploitation, or at best it had a place as a sort of trivial museum of the Earth. My ignorance and lack of self-awareness was astounding.

Today, at 27 years old, this notion seems absurdly naive and misguided. It seems that we are armed with sufficient information for a refutation of this delusion in our high school science class. I appreciate now, however, that it is one thing to acknowledge the truth of a proposition, and another to feel it. The latter requires the individual develop a degree of consciousness beyond that of selfish immediacy.

This delusion is one that I have found quite commonly suffered. In this piece I want to try and accurately define this delusion and chart the series of experiences and epiphanies that helped me lift me from it. If I have the mental clarity, at a later date I hope to move on to psychological, religious and social observations – but for the time being I will consign myself to definition.

Defining the delusion

The problem is this: certain members of our species have somehow convinced themselves that human beings stand outside the natural world and it’s order. They believe this in spite of the basic facts of nature; that we are the product of Darwinian evolution, and that we are demonstrably part of the same process of organic life as any other animal. Perhaps they have convinced themselves that we are not of this universe; that we were created after the fact by a bearded Creator – but the specifics are not hugely importance at this stage. What is important is to recognise that this belief has serious consequence in the way that we live and view our lives, not to mention our perceived moral obligations and personal aspirations.

Carl Jung once wrote:

People who know nothing about nature are of course neurotic, for they are not adapted to reality. They are too naive, like children, and it is necessary to tell them the facts of life, so to speak – to make it plain to them that they are human beings like all others.

(Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 166)

By this Jung meant that humans need concrete, physical contact with the natural world to remind them that they are animals of nature. Huddled in cityscrapers and in constant engagement with abstract ideas and environments of our own construction, we tend to forget this fact, in spite of it’s self-evidence. The delusion of which I speak is a common manifestation, and one which inhibits psychological wholeness.

Our scientific understanding of the nature of the universe can provide us much to combat this delusion. I ask you please indulge me while I spell out the obvious (that we perhaps ‘know’ but might not yet ‘feel’):

We are animals.

Our species and our selves are the result of the process of evolution of organic life.

The universe is the meta-process that enables and makes possible our very being.

We are comprised of the same stuff as any other living creature – and of any matter in the universe; atoms.

When we die and our bodies decay those atoms are recycled into other materials, forms and being.

These facts are non-negotiable. Any conclusions we wish to draw from the above might invite a variety of interpretations of varying validity, but we cannot reasonably discount our understanding of the above. It would serve us well to regularly repeat that thought for grounding and perspective; this is what is known, so let us start building our morality and worldview from that.

Escape from delusion

But again we come back to the crux of the issue; we might ‘know’ or acknowledge the above – but acknowledgement is not enough alone. We must feel this to be true; or, in other words, we must couple a scientific/rational understanding of our relation to the universe with an emotional or spiritual one. And this is crucial, because the absence of an existential foundation has great potential to warp our psyche and leave us with a permanent psychological limp. How can we be expected to maintain a balanced mental state if we are unable to recognise the most basic truths of our existence?

We cannot. Instead the narrow limit of our consciousness consigns us to be blown about by shallow emotion and egoistic drives. We would exist merely on the surface of life, with deeper forms of contentment rendered inaccessible. We would also lack a firm moral grounding – for how we view the context of our lives effects a huge amount of the small actions and decisions that make up our day-to-day.

The ultimate consequence is, in short, is misery – both personal and more general. We will be damned to live out our days without ever knowing how to access deeper states of contentment and happiness. Thus we are left to blindly discern aims merely guided by our wills; constantly goal-seeking – but when we achieve our goal (or if our will falters) we experience a moment of profound panic or fear. While the goal has been met, that feeling of a deeper satisfaction still seems to elude us. We ask ourselves: ‘Was that it? What now? What comes next?’ And so we might be led down a false path, building up a series of goals and achievements in an attempt to hopelessly chase a longer-lasting satisfaction – but if we lack a proper understanding about who we are and how our minds work, then we will never find it. And so we risk ending up like those miserable husks of humans I mentioned in my opening paragraphs.

And this, friends, is surely what we would like to avoid.

To me it seems our failure to recognise some that we share a common essence with the universe – or a failure to we feel we ‘belong’ here – is the root of all nihilism. To feel as though we are unwanted strangers whose cries echo endlessly in the halls of a cold, unfeeling world that cares not at all whether we live, suffer or die — this is a severely traumatic experience, especially for a species as psychologically fragile as we.

It is for this reason that I feel this delusion is the defining spiritual sickness of our time – but if think back to those foundational scientific claims, we can defeat this delusion. It is so clearly inaccurate given the facts at hand. Human life is like any other form of organic life; a process of the universe. Human beings are so obviously of life and of the natural systems on earth – so what stops us from recognising this?

Overcoming the delusion

It is our ego, the teller of lies, that fuels this sense of estrangement. While it certainly plays a useful psychological role, it also regularly infects our minds with delusion. It is like a parasite that will whisper endless untruths for the sake of its own survival. It would love nothing more than to endless bloat itself with self-satisfaction until we are completely consumed by a sense of arrogant entitlement. We ultimately suffer for the over-indulgence of the ego – and so too the people that we love and care for.

So, how can we combat the influence of the ego? Well, most importantly we need to be able to properly identify it’s influence. This requires the purposeful cultivation of detached self-awareness, introspection and reflection. To paraphrase Alan Watts; take care to watch your thoughts like an impassive observer – do this especially whenever you feel yourself in an elevated mood (say in a moment of anger of jealousy) and try to discern why this is taking place. The idea is to think about your thinking, and through this method you will begin to understand how your mind works, and from there gain the power to question the validity of the ego’s influence.

So now we have come full circle. The most desirable trait we can accumulate is knowledge about the self. Through this process we can gradually become aware of our ‘true’ selves (of which I feel I am beginning to get glimpse). The result is a pervading sense of contentment, the cultivation of meaning, and the avoidance of the bitterness of triviality. Above all, we greatly reduce the risk that we might wake up one day to find our life a failure.

It is one of the great ironies that the deeper we delve deeper into ourselves , the more the universe outside becomes illuminated. As Carl Jung wrote (and as I tend to quote endlessly):

Who looks outside; dreams.

Who looks inside; awakens.

Reflection and self-knowledge are the key to better understanding and connecting-with the true nature of reality – and in discerning how to live a more fulfilled and meaningful life. This is the most useful proposition that I hold.