Metaphysical Car Wreck, Part II • 7 June 2007

…As I was saying just before sleep the other night night: Lots of meditation teachers warn that it is easy to hide inside your mindfulness or contemplative practice; and the same is true for asana. Many of us feel this practice to be a refuge—a beautiful, true stroke of luck in our tragicomic lives. Even at our most sincere—when we’re not using the practice to construct a self-image that’s worked-out, insightful, balanced—we’re capable of practicing without looking at whatever it is we don’t want to see.

Ok. So, it is easy to conflate practice and therapy. Personal time, quiet time, reflection time…, and the leavening sanitymaker, the place we air out the anxiety or the rage or the giddiness.

Westerners are tormented by our selves, and we know it. The main way we run is by consuming. (Good thing for the capitalist elite, for now.) Meanwhile, floating around the ether are, let’s say, three broad entry-points to facing the pain: drugs, therapy, and religion. Let’s take all three treatments at face value, as if the do what they claim to do. So, drugs mainly go after symptoms. Nevermind all that: it’s not conceptually different from “retail therapy.”

But self-analytic therapy and contemplative practice look for causes and, at their best, rip pain-sources out by their roots—the first by acceptance and/or release, the second by detachment. Contemplative practice posits that we have reactive habits which bind us; therapy posits that we split off, repress and project pieces of our inner experience in self-deceptive, painful ways.

Both are accurate pictures of inner life, and both “solutions” are semi-successful. In fact, Western common-sense understandings of what it is to be a human are entirely shot through with everyday assumptions that both psychotherapeutic and contemplative theories of human experience are largely true. For pragmatists who define truth as “what works” (the Buddha; William James; me; you unless you’re a committed solipsist or other philosophical nutjob), then, the insights of each approach qualify the other’s status as any be-all-end-all solution.

From this practical, non-fundamentalist perspective—cooking up nourishment with whatever happens to be in the kitchen—here’s the question of the day. What to do about anger—e.g., when a troll shows up in your community and both infuriates you and makes you act in ways you later regret?

Here’s Ken Wilber taking contemplation and therapy on their own terms, and making them complements. When it comes to contemplative practitioners who use practice to transcend anger, yet have bits of anger they’ve previously split off and projected, he writes (IS, 129):

Denying ownership [of anger] is not dis-identification but denial. It is trying to dis-identify with an impulse BEFORE ownership is acknowledged and felt, and that dis-ownership produces symptoms, not liberation. And once that prior dis-ownership has occurred, the dis-identification and detachment process of meditation will likely make it worse, but in any event will not get at the root cause.

Does it work to rely on Integral thought here? Not that I don’t have a passel of doubts about this overall system: its central metaphor, the AQAL matrix, is one big philosophy-eating box plot. And its proponents seem to spend their efforts in forcing the world into its color-coded schema (I’d rather see them working to integrate the schema back into itself at the roots)—this focus leads to a lot of talk about the matrix, and less talk about experience. There is in this, unrestrained, the colonialist impulse of conquering-by-mapping (a trouble that Wilber, the original master mind, doubtless understands because his grasp of the last 30 years of social theory is awesome). And even though my hero Pierre Bourdieu deployed much of what I like best about Wilber’s sensibility decades ago, Wilber can synthesize like nobody’s business, in ways useful to people all over the epistemic-ideological-geographical-cultural map. In Chapter 6 of Integral Spirituality. He makes simple the complementarity of analysis and contemplation by describing pathologies in the ultimately more transcendent and interesting practice of contemplation (126):

Once… repression occurs, it is still possible to experience the anger, but no longer the ownership of the anger…. I can practice vipassana meditation on that [disowned] anger as long as I want, where I… simply notice that “there is anger arising, there is anger arising, there is anger arising” – but all that will do is refine and heighten my awareness of anger [as a an object outside of me]. Meditative and contemplative endeavors simply do not get at… the fundamental ownership-boundary problem…. Painful experience has demonstrated time and again that meditation simply will not get at the original shadow, and can, in fact, often exacerbate it. Amidst all the wonderful benefits of meditation and contemplation, it is still hard to miss the fact that even long-time meditators still have considerable shadow elements.

No kidding! Shall I name names, or will an awareness of our own shortcomings be sufficient?

I love the idea of asana practice as a refuge, and in the past year of family trauma it has been nothing but refuge to me. I don’t doubt this or regret it: I’m just damn thankful. But if we think that having a practice means we don’t have to work on ourselves in other ways, it is a refuge from the world? Or, again, from ourselves?

13 Comments

  • Posted 7 June 2007 at 12:13 pm | #

    Practice is actually the time of the day when I work on myself! :-)

  • Posted 7 June 2007 at 2:11 pm | #

    I can work things out during practice which I can then use in my life. Mostly cutting out the crap to get to what matters. It’s hard to lie to yourself during practice.

  • Posted 7 June 2007 at 4:08 pm | #

    Ok, this is interesting. I genuinely don’t know what it’s like to work on cutting through the crap during practice. Strange. But I seriously don’t have important insights or resolutions on the mat, and I’ve only once experienced a strongly embodied emotion (during savanasa in a flow class, after a teacher had berated me—so it doesn’t exactly count). From the beginning, I’ve usually just zoned out on the breath (while following the breath is basically impossible for more than a short time when I do sitting practice, for some reason it’s the default during astanga). Recently, I’m meditating more on the body than the breath, because I’m injured and feeling my way through it—it’s not too different from following the breath, though it lacks rhythm and, because I’m injured, makes me impatient sometimes. So… while you two are working through stuff and finding some resolutions, while what I’m experiencing is more like “Vipassana 101.”

    In any case, this calls into question my assumption that asana practice is only helpful as a platform for contemplation, and not for analysis. It would be cool to hear where between these two others’ experiences fit.

    Whatever the case, I agree that it’s hard to lie to yourself during practice. The mind is awesome at self-deception, but the body’s harder to manipulate… even if you foot can go behind your head.

  • Posted 7 June 2007 at 5:16 pm | #

    This all sounds like another rehashing of the arguments on the importance of practice over theory. Theories are always abstract. The process of reconstituting abstractions is never straightforward and we’ll always dig out at least as many vagaries as solutions.

    We can discuss the various methods that’ve been used to get at the better way until we’re blue and breathless. Ultimately, it always comes down to doing. The tried and true ways are good starting points.

    I’ll have to read this Wilber guy. He seems to imply that a lengthier effort indicates lesser efficacy and that is absolutely silly. We are each systems of many variables and we’re rather complex. Make a radical change in a single variable, without respect to the way it affects others in the system, and the result is often (if not mostly) an unpleasant surprise.

    Okay, so that is an abstraction. But it’s true that adversity requires careful examination. The quick solutions, like drugs and re-labeled shock treatments, can create instabilities. It’s better to sit down and work it all out the way it comes to us. It sucks if we’re angry but sometimes we just have to be angry for a while.

  • Posted 7 June 2007 at 6:57 pm | #

    I don’t feel like I’m working things out on the mat. Rather, I feel repercussions of practice in “real life,” and some of those repercussions imply that some working out has been done (e.g., more calm in the face of difficult challenges, more receptive to what may be intuitive insights — though in the end, they may turn out to be delusions). I am breath-oriented during practice; occasionally a thought comes in loud and clear (generally around a pose I’m afraid of), but for the most part, there’s no thinking going on. But in that stillness, I imagine there may be some subconscious “work” happening. At any rate, somewhere between the practice and the so-called life, a kind of transformation seems to occur.

    Zen monks have told me that practice burns off karma. For a long time, I thought it was the act of the practice itself (whether zazen or Ashtanga), the mechanics of it: now, though, it’s seeming like they were talking about the process. Of course, they’d laugh if I asked for clarification.

  • Posted 8 June 2007 at 5:32 am | #

    I think that perhaps it’s more contemplation rather than the noise that can be analysis. For me it goes some thing like this:

    - “you are feeling this” – “you are behaving like this” – “you are like this” – “You are doing this” – “This is bothering you” – “This is beautiful”

    …and so on. It’s a no-questions-asked simple statement which can leave me silent. Which doesn’t happen very often :)- A response to it is not obligatory or necessary.

  • Posted 8 June 2007 at 8:33 am | #

    I don’t think there is one answer to “how asana practice should work”. Horses for courses, I guess. I do work my own issues on the mat, mostly because not being influenced to a lot of outside influences/noise, I can be introspective enough as to observe myself. Am I pushing myself too hard today? If so, why? Why do I secretly wish that H would say something about my newly acquired chakrasanas? :-)

    But that doesn’t mean that asana should work like this for other people. I’m just fine with everyone else not feeling like this, the same way that when others talk about feeling the energy of the pose, I just don’t get it.

  • Posted 8 June 2007 at 9:54 am | #

    CJ, what you wrote is pretty beautiful. One time when I was feeling like a smartass, someone asked me what is yoga, and I said “a platform for awakening.” I felt at the time that it was a snarky thing to say. But it works as that. Lots of ways work. Vanessa’s right.

    Carl, I’ve been thinking over your comment, and wouldn’t say that this is a practice/ theory conversation. It’s a practice conversation! While I love the sentiment “Whereof whe cannot speak thereof we are to remain silent” and have a severe crush on Wittgenstein as well as a few other dead gay men (Heraclitus, Aristotle…), I’d submit that assigning the activities of the mind to “theory” perpetrates a false material/ideal distinction that would have the body being realer than the mind. Mind’s real, inside and out, and at least for me it’s wonderfully helpful to submit my inner experience in asana to at least as much reflection as I do the poses. Maybe the reason that, as Karen’s said, ashtanga bloggers drop off after a while is because it’s harder to write about consciousness (and subtle and energetic stuff) than about our limbs. But: I’m all for tryin’.

    ‘Cos the mind’s not magic: we can know it. Is the process of inquiry that happens internally in practice all that different from the process of finding the physical body? We watch a teenager or a new practitioner move from not knowing where his limbs are in space and how to connect them—to a dynamic linkage of the mind into the body, which creates outer grace. Has the mind, thus, changed too? I would say this is not so magical or mysterious that we cannot share it with others in conversation. Both ashtanga, and sharing others’ experiences, are demystification practices.

    It may be that SKPJ, in his Shivaism, is sort of pushing in the other direction. For many in his orbit, what’s REAL is mind—and the body is illusion. But as Steve Dwelley said somewhere, SKPJ links nondualism with a “total affirmation of the body.” Thank god. Thank SKPJ.

    And I so much agree with you, Carl, on this. If you have the chance of building on tried-and-true methods born of sages’ dedicated inquiry, why in the hell not? Lineage is a gift, not for giving ourselves pedigrees and hierarchies (which is a strange thing some younger LA teachers do—wearing their yoga “style” as a brand name so everyone will know they’re different). Especially since I have such a hungry monkey-mind, it’s helpful to focus on a line of “research” that comes from somewhere and demonstrably works… instead of digging a bunch of shallow wells in the LA yoga soil, which itself can be a little shallow. :)

  • Posted 8 June 2007 at 12:40 pm | #

    OWl, I re-read your post a couple times as I should have done before I commented. I tend to digest blog posts with respect to citations made in them so I was stuck on the Wilber stuff.

    I agree with you that one’s mind is as real as any other part. But what I meant by my remark about theory was that in the passages that you cited, Wilber seemed to be dismissing some ages-old methods for approaching the workings of the mind. Methods that have found acceptance through success. He pointed out that some people experience persistent issues despite their diligent meditation practices, etc. He seemed to be saying this persistence is reason for demoting the meditation from its position, presumably, at the head of a list of options. I don’t know what alternatives he might offer in dealing with ownership of anger though. Maybe you can tell us.

    “Practice practice practice!” is a great directive because, in doing the practice as much as possible, we increase our opportunities for making observations. By observing things more frequently, we improve our chances that something will click in our minds and we’ll come to a better understanding of what’s happening. It’s like finding yourself facing a large heap of potatoes that need peeling and you have a crappy peeler in your hand. You start in on the potatoes and quickly come to feel unhappy because the job sucks. Big time. So the more potatoes you peel, the more you come to a desire to fix the peeler issue. You might decide to sharpen it or go buy a bright new Ginsu peeler. Whatever you do, the problem continues to sit plainly under your nose while you adapt it into your work. Eventually, you must see the problem for what it is and then go about fixing it. But if we’re wrong in assuming you’ll eventualy see it and figure it out, then… well… I guess you’re lost.

    The more I read on the topic of yoga and asana practice, the more I think the intention is simply to settle the interface between mind and body. The mind and body share a relationship wherein each can cast effects upon the other. ‘Yoga’ means ‘to yoke’ according to the literature but the mind, body and soul are already yoked up — they never function independantly from one another. Yoga must therefore be about easing the connection so they don’t mutually aggravate each other. It’s not about removing some adverse emotions from within us. The emotions are integral and they are meant to stay here, inside, where they fulfill a real purpose. We just have to know what they are and how to make them work for us.

    Practice can’t be a refuge because it’s only the way you smooth yourself out. Read Iyengar’s Light on Life if you get a chance. He doesn’t put things as plainly as some might like but he’s also not terse. He has a buttload of yoga experience and he is quite readable too.

  • TROLL
    Posted 9 June 2007 at 6:58 pm | #

    I can not agree more with your agreement. The agreement is so mindful and this binds us all. If you do not agree with such terms and conditions; then do not use yoga for the agreement. It is simple as mc**2. How you can formalise your agreement? You can not. We can agree on how our practice perform during rainy days. We cannot and do not check to see whether asana names you use are correct. More like an open debate. In a debate, you evaluate the beliefs of the one who opposes you, your intent is not to agree with them, your goal is to prove “otherwise”. But here I can not agree more with your agreement.

    Anyway, what is the agreement we’re talking about?

  • Posted 9 June 2007 at 9:33 pm | #

    Hello, Zee. Here’s what “this agreement is about” on a deeper level: we’re constructing intersubjectivity here. It’s hard. But it can happen. The main things it takes are dedication to listening really well and communicating really clearly. Add to these sincere intentions the reasonable assumption of shared experience, and here we go.

    If you want to L-I-S-T-E-N, be my guest. But you’ll recall that you already promised to keep quiet.

  • Posted 10 June 2007 at 3:29 pm | #

    What is “mc**2”?

  • Posted 10 June 2007 at 8:33 pm | #

    I think it was supposed to be MC^2. As in E=.

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