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?