The Religious Life: A Psychological Perspective
By Sylvia Swain
The Ego Complex
Phiroz has always presented religion as the prime purpose of mankind, saying, “Man is a religious animal.” A study of the Jungian psychological models has confirmed that our psychology has derived from a sense of the numinous, i.e. the sacred quality of life. In a letter Jung wrote:
… The main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neuroses but rather with the approach to the numinous. But the fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experiences you are released from the curse of pathology.
The religious life, then, and the healthy life, is the life which nurtures the quality of the sacred. We sometimes think of it as a journey to a destination which is unknown to us; then the old joke comes to mind that, if we want to go to such a remote place, we should not start from here! However, the religious life not only starts from here, but it continues in the here and now as a way of life. It is a way of life which involves constant effort and mindfulness because it is a way of transcendence which itself is not a distant goal but is the ultimate human capacity to be realized throughout life, as and when the experiences of life are lived out in the religious mode, and the work completed. In the face of such a tremendous possibility it is natural to feel inadequate, but it is, as Phiroz tells us, a matter of growth and all forms of growth have humble beginnings. Neither the egg or the acorn can know its ultimate destiny until it has relinquished its egghood or acornhood and the later stages of growth and transformation have been accomplished. In human spiritual life an analogy for the egg is the ego; according to Jung the ego is the organ of consciousness and it has its particular way to make.
In the mythology of religion the story of the garden of Eden is one of many analogies for the dawn of human self-consciousness. With the expulsion from Eden, man began his separate, individual existence. In pain and suffering he discovered good and evil, conscience and responsibility. It was taught that we are born in sin. It is now explained that we are born into a complex. Jung said:
Our consciousness issues from a dark body, the ego, which is the indispensable condition for all consciousness… The ego, ostensibly the thing we know most about, is in fact a highly complex affair full of unfathomable obscurities … in the source of light there is darkness enough for any amount of projections, for the ego grows out of the darkness of the psyche.
Collected Works volume 14 paragraph 129
Each life begins in the womb in a physical and psychological darkness. When we are born we see the light of day, and brain and mind begin to experience the world of the senses. Only experiences of a certain intensity can stimulate a moment of conscious awareness and evoke a response; firstly a cry, later a smile, and at this early stage moments of consciousness register randomly like tiny islets scattered across the face of the deep. As the brain grows, periods of wakefulness get longer, the outer world intrudes sufficiently on the inner world to activate an archetypal urge to individual psychic life.
Before the crystallization of consciousness takes place we live in a spontaneous, choiceless life, simply expressing instinctive drives or sleeping, and during this time everything is experienced as one world; there is no distinction between self and other, no such separate concepts are possible. As development proceeds, there is an increasing intensity of pleasant and painful experiences, of stimulation and frustration, as if coming from a separate place beyond our world, and we then discover a world “out there” which does not necessarily come when we call or even if we scream! But a world which does sometimes come to disturb us when we do not want it to. Gradually we learn to distinguish between ourselves and that other world and to learn to communicate with it. We then begin to appreciate that it offers us incentives and deterrents which get us to modify our previously spontaneous behaviour. We learn control, we formulate judgements based on what is experienced as pleasant and unpleasant, and our one world divides into two; a world which attracts and a world which repels; we become capable of choice!
At the same time as we are learning to make our own choices in this complicated world, the adults around us are making things more complicated by trying to impose some of their choices and values as social ethics. The life that we would like to live is depicted as “dirty, naughty, selfish and unkind”, and we are offered ethical alternatives of “the good, the clean, the nice and the helpful.”
Now things get even more complicated as self-consciousness comes in and with it self-evaluation. From being an unquestioned centre in an unconscious world, a kind of Eden, we increasingly find ourselves feeling like isolated entities who are trying to make a small space for themselves in a strange and critical environment. We begin to feel fear, shame and guilt, things that are quite unbearable at this early stage. We want to feel safe and to do that we need to feel good and acceptable, and so we make our first ethical decision. It is an ethical decision in so far as it is taken in response to ideas of good and evil. However it is unethical in that in the process we deny and disown a fundamental part of the total self. This action is called repression, which means that, having identified with our chosen “good”, we have disidentified with our unwanted “evil”, which has now become the “not-self”, and the “not-self” becomes the nucleus, in the personal unconscious, or shadow, as Jung called it, of all the primitive and unwanted aspects of the personality. Thus self and “not-self” are an unconscious interdependent polarity owing their existence to choice, and thus the fundamental characteristics of the ego complex can be seen to have their origins in pain, conflict and division.
Jung said that at the heart of the neurotic complex there is to be found an ethical problem, and we can see from this early complex just how deep-seated our ethical problems can be. No-one escapes; the shadow formation is the inescapable price we pay for becoming conscious. Jung put it this way:
… in the long run nobody can dodge his shadow unless he lives in eternal darkness.
Collected Works volume 10 paragraph 362
Now we can see how important it is not to confuse oppression, such as the recrimination from the family, with repression, which is an inner mechanism which can occur in response to it. If we feel we were damaged by an outside agency in early life, we tend to feel that we cannot help but be a damaged person no matter what we do, and so we take on that damaged identity.
If we do this, then it is we who are setting the limits on our own development. The good news is that mind itself cannot be damaged in the sense that the body can be damaged. If someone chops off one of our limbs, that is palpable damage. But the psyche can only be conditioned by the influence of others if we accept that conditioning and take on ourselves a mantle of guilt or inferiority, but if we investigate ourselves we can see the truth of what we are.
Sometimes people are conditioned to think too well of themselves. They become spoilt and over-confident, and this is an even harder lesson to learn once the truth comes out. We are not our neurosis, but a mistaken attitude of self-blame and guilt may well be responsible for it.
We should not try to get rid of a neurosis but rather to experience … what its purpose is … A neurosis is truly removed only when it has removed the false attitude of the ego. We do not cure it — it cures us.
Collected Works volume 10 paragraph 361
Such suffering, then, is not a terrible mistake from on high, but we often need to go into it quite deeply before we can understand its meaning.
Mythologically, the bid for consciousness is an heroic venture, equivalent to stealing the fire of the Gods. Initially the tender embryonic ego needs protection, it cannot bear the pain, and repression is a form of defence mechanism enabling forgetfulness, just as the persona is a protective garment as well as a means of relating.
When we repress, a choice is made, and the selections we make are in response to inner needs as well as to outer pressures. The making of choices indicates an awareness of good and evil, and the knowledge of good and evil is the end of our innocence. Innocence means “incapable of doing harm” (Latin innocens) and its opposite means noxious, so in the process of becoming conscious, we human beings become “noxious”, i.e. capable of harm. However, it is said that consciousness stands above innocence, and so man, who has the gift of choice, stands above the angels, who do not. There is a high price to pay for this gift which brings with it such great potential, and that price is that from now on, as Erich Neumann put it: “The shadow forms part of the nuclear structure of our individuality.”
Our smooth flat innocence has now acquired a black dimension, giving perspective to individuality; giving us a responsibility and shaping our fate. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections (page 88), Jung tells of a dream which both frightened and encouraged him. In it he was struggling against a mighty wind through dense, flying fog, and carrying cupped in his hands a tiny light. “Suddenly”, he said, “I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back and saw a gigantic, black figure following me. I was conscious in spite of my terror that I must keep my little light going through night and wind, regardless of all dangers. When I awoke I realised that the figure was a spectre of the Brocken, my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying. I knew too that this little light was my consciousness, the only light I have. My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light.” Further on, he says: “I recognised clearly that my path lead irrevocably outward, into the limitations and darkness of three-dimensionality. It seemed to me that Adam must once have left Paradise in this manner; Eden had become a spectre for him, and light was where a stony path had to be tilled in the sweat of his brow.”
However we look at things, it is clear that the life of choice and consciousness is not an easy option but always a challenge. The ego has to learn to live between a series of opposing tensions. It has to meet the requirements of the outer world and yet not to deviate too far from its own given nature. To go too far in any direction causes instability and suffering. In myth and legend, the ego is always the hero or heroine and is the “I” in our dreams.
In contrast to the tiny ego light, the shadow is a strong invisible influence in our lives. Cut off from consciousness, it seeks expression in devious ways. Apart from those famous slips of the tongue and sudden outbursts which we claim are “not the real me at all!”, it has the device of projection, a totally unconscious process whereby everything we have disowned and forgotten through repression is attributed to some other person, group of people, or nation. The tragedy of this is that we really believe it, and until we see ourselves as we are, we are quite unable to see others as they really are, and thus they become our scapegoats.
The use of projection and justification is indicative of immaturity of ego and a very dim little light which cannot penetrate the dense swirling fog. If however we see the truth of this, what can we do about it? We can take on more responsibility for our own “noxiousness”. Jung suggests in its place we use the more ethical alternative of suppression, or control, which is a conscious, moral choice. Suppression of our primitive drives requires conscious commitment; to operate it takes willpower, discipline and self-sacrifice, in fact all the religious virtues which the immature mind would rather pray for than practise. Of suppression, Jung said:
Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering but it never causes a neurosis. Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.
Men like Jung and William Blake, who wrote the famous lines: “Man is born to joy and woe”, do not allow us to forget that each life must hold its share of “legitimate suffering.”
If we suppress our primitive urges with conscious discipline, we accept the legitimate sacrifice and suffering which that entails, and as a consequence we live not only more consciously and more realistically but more healthily, psychologically speaking. In the same passage Jung says: “One is rather inclined to be lenient with sinners who are unconscious of their sins. But nature is not at all lenient with unconscious sinners. She punishes them just as severely as if they had committed a conscious offence.”
In Man and his Symbols (page 163), Jung puts it like this:
It even seems as if the ego has not been produced by nature to follow its own arbitrary impulses to an unlimited extent, but to help to make real the totality — the whole psyche. It is the ego that serves to light up the entire system, allowing it to become conscious and thus to be realised.
We are meant to understand that initially the ego chooses to exclude certain aspects in order to go on to concentrate on establishing itself as the focal point of light, but that there is a limit to this outward direction. The time has to come for the shadow to be acknowledged as a part of the total psyche.
The third aspect of the ego complex is the persona. Persona means mask. Personae are the masks we wear on the stage of life. Our persona is the face we put on; it is the face which protects our inner privacy and which we try to “save “ on occasions. It has been called the archetype of conformity because it is largely based on all those collective ideals as social requirements, in deference to which the ego originally made its sacrifice of instinctive life when the foundations of the shadow were laid down. Its function is dual, to create the appropriate impression to facilitate good relationships both socially and professionally, but also to conceal and protect those inner, personal aspects which do not belong to our social role.
Persona formation can take place consciously in order to facilitate the achievement of our ambitions, in which case we train ourselves up as if for a part in a play; as Shakespeare said: “All the world’s a stage”. Or it can happen unconsciously through a process of identification with people who exemplify our ideals. In this case the parent of the same sex may provide us with an example to follow, or a teacher or any person of influence in our lives. In dreams, the persona development is often represented by clothing or the lack of it, whether it fits properly or, more ominously, whether we are fused to it.
The assumption of a persona comes more readily or successfully to the extrovert, who is naturally socially oriented, than it does to the introvert who attaches more significance to the inner world than to the outer. This may not be a bad thing because anything which draws the ego too far from its total reality can be dangerous; the persona can be too good!
A good example of the persona role in action is given by Dr. J. Hall in his book Jungian Dream Interpretation (page 18). It is that of the doctor who, with his correct bedside manner and air of authority, and wearing his white coat, can perform potentially embarrassing examinations and so on, and this works very well. However, says Hall, “The converse persona, that of the patient, is one physicians have notorious difficulty assuming when they themselves are ill.” It is true that doctors make the worst patients.
He also identifies three persona danger areas. Firstly, there is the excessive development producing the stereotype of the role; secondly, an inadequate development which does not do one justice; thirdly, there can be identification with it. Excessive development produces an exact fit, but perhaps too much psychic energy has been tied up in it and thus people may feel that there is no real person underneath. Inadequate development produces a personality which is too vulnerable to hurt and rejection, because insufficiently protected. The third of what he calls the persona malfunctions produces the most serious of the problems. Identification always produces the worst psychological problems because the ego is identified with something not itself and so it has lost touch with its own reality; but with mindfulness this never happens. In this case, being unable to separate from its social role, whatever threatens the role, threatens the ego. One can imagine the seriousness of the situation of, say, a parent with no other resources than the role of parent, when the children leave home, or the case of those whose work has been their life and who have failed to cultivate wider interests or any alternative sense of identity, when they have to retire. They suffer an identity crisis. Terrible feelings of boredom and emptiness can ensue, causing depression, and professional help is needed. These are consequences of identification with the persona and avoidance of one’s duty to the inner reality. Ideally, the ego needs to be able to detach itself from the persona in order to know whether that persona constitutes a valid presentation or not. On the positive side, there is also the possibility of its being used as a means of training and transforming the ego; unconscious capacity may be developed initially through adapting a persona role and subsequently integrating it as a developed function; in other words, we practise a skill which later becomes, quite naturally, a part of our personality and functioning.
Having set out the three-fold structure (shadow, ego and persona) of the ego complex, what more needs to be said about it? The depth, intricacy and interrelatedness of its structure provide its extraordinary potential in the evolutionary scheme of things. To what distant frontiers might this potential lead? The ego-function begins a process which eventually can lead the human being to the numinous goal; but, unlike the physical processes of the egg, the final result is not achieved automatically because the psychological ingredient of self-awareness which it brings to human life is always subject to choice and motivation whether it leads to pathology or to the numinous.
The Scapegoat Complex
An example of the part played by choice and motivation in the progress of the ego to either pathology or to a higher consciousness is that of the formation of the Scapegoat Complex.
Historically it originated as a religious method to purge guilt but later degenerated into pathology i.e. a negative complex in the collective shadow. Having developed our separate, what Phiroz described as ‘isolative self-consciousness,’ humanity could only conceive of God indirectly, in projection, and whilst this is the case that closer union which is the eventual goal is not possible. So we either live in our isolation, or we undertake that dark and hazardous pathway through the unknown before we can discover who we really are.
It has ever been the case; ‘Those things I would do, I do not; but those things I would not do, those things I do.’ Under the old black and white authoritarian religious systems, not only was evil in projection but so was good. With God in projection, and a great area of instinctive life in repression, the ways of good and evil were largely inexplicable and uncontrollable. Man felt himself to be the recipient of fate meted out by the gods, until the time of the coming of Christianity when, whilst still in the midst of a primitive polytheism, we were forced to adopt sophisticated doctrines of Christian grace and love. This produced, not a sudden conversion, as was hoped, but a dissociation between conscious and unconscious, something Jung described as “a peculiar twist”. The reason for this was that, although intellectually and philosophically we can absorb and agree with ethically higher doctrine, until we have developed to a sufficiently higher standard of psychological maturity, our emotions, feelings and desires will remain what they were, because we cannot transform the heart as easily as we can change the mind. This is because, whereas the thinking, reasoning mind is within the conscious domain, the emotions and passions originate in the unconscious. Even the rationality which over the years has served to distance us from faith in spirituality and in the existence of higher beings, cannot solve our ethical problems. As Jung explained:
This split between conscious and unconscious, meant that the conscious personality could become highly disciplined, organised and rational on the one side but the other side remains suppressed, cut off from education and civilisation, which explains our many lapses into the most appalling barbarity. And the more we climb the mountain of scientific and technical achievement the more dangerous and diabolical becomes the misuse of our inventions.
But he continued:
If the white man does not succeed in destroying his own race with his brilliant inventions he will eventually have to settle down to a desperately serious course of self-education.
Collected Works volume 10 paragraph 1010
So let us look at this general problem as it affects the inner problem of the individual, because it is only with the individual that real change can come about. For example, the popular press with its nose for scandal makes public scapegoats every day, but the real scandal is that many people read it in order to enjoy a vicarious participation in this unconscious, pagan ritual, because somehow it helps them to feel better about themselves. Jung observed that when we thus project our guilt onto others and exchange it for what he called an “infantile innocence,” we get caught up in an inescapable “causal nexus”, that is a group linked by a common cause of scapegoating, and without noticing it we lose our moral freedom, that is our individual conscience. He said:
Only a fool is interested in other people’s guilt since he cannot alter it. The wise man learns only from his own guilt. He will ask himself, ‘Who am I that all this should happen to me?’ To find the answer to this question he will look into his own heart.
Collected Works volume 12 paragraph 152
Let us look at the basic pattern of the complex, which can be understood as producing three types of participants:
- The scapegoater who is a self-righteous perfectionist, a nit-picker, or a bully, punishing and condemning everyone else, the Inquisition type.
- The victim with a negative self-image who feels personal inadequacy, and who accepts blame and punishment either from outside, or from inside as self-hatred.
- One who develops both an inner accuser and an inner victim. It is the nature of the ego structure, with its twisted dissociation from natural reality, that it can, and frequently does, set unnaturally high goals for itself. Simultaneously it projects unreasonably black guilt not only onto others but onto itself. Through a lack of understanding and capacity the scapegoat, originally a religious archetype, has turned negative and has become no longer an archetype of atonement, but one of punishment and sickness disguised as an ethic.
As a consequence of this unrecognised, unaddressed problem, unlike the Indian gods based on the instincts, all the gods of modern man have become diseases. In his book Alchemical Studies Jung said:
We are just as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms.
Though we may feel ourselves to be helpless victims of our history, of our society, of our parentage or whatever, and that we have in our turn to pass the whole thing on as reaction or revenge or just as our sickness, it is not so. Mankind, even in a psychological epidemic, does have a choice, but a choice that can be made only on an individual basis. Even during the Nazi epidemic, the classic example, there were some who did not succumb, yet those previously normal decent people who did succumb, did so through their shadow. Mass horrors always happen unconsciously through the shadow, through greed, people can be bribed: through fear, people can be coerced. Envy, spite or self-pity can turn people into informers and monsters, because these are virtually automatic reactions, whereas considered ethical choice involves conscious restraint, deliberation and ethical decisions.
Ethical decision begins, as does the living of the religious life, with watchfulness turned inwardly, or mindfulness if we prefer. This inward turning is the first ethical decision we need to make to orientate ourselves to religious living. Western religion has traditionally looked outwards and upwards for its salvation to a deity, and the secular community to science or to politics to provide regulation or reform for the evils of society, but things continue to get worse. The greater the power given to the sick mind the greater the mischief it can wreak. A recent shocking example of this has been a set of statistics showing increases in the numbers of fatal shootings in America by irritated motorists on the highways, and, and even more distressing, murders of children by other children in the playgrounds. When there is a combination of heedless anger and the right to carry arms as a treasured form of “freedom”, the worst can happen. The worst thing about it is that such things happen to the “ordinary” man or child, those who consider themselves “normal” — average, reasonable citizens. The evil deed was spontaneous, without warning, as when a spark ignites a flammable household substance. It was so “ordinary” that it was not guarded against.
It is now an established fact of psychology that the evils of the world spring from the shadow of the world to which we all have contributed our share.
The highest value a human being can contribute to the good of the world is to withdraw their own contribution to its shadow. It is also the highest good they can do for themselves. It heals that person and helps others at the same time. Like charity, healing and virtue begin at home. Being the best, it is also the most difficult, at least to begin with. The most difficult thing about this most difficult thing is knowing where to begin. This is where all who have the privilege of Phiroz’s teaching are so fortunate. Whatever we listen to or read contains the essence of religion, its way and its heart. When he presented to us a religious ideal, he also gave the practical, psychological foundation.
He was wont to say: “One must begin with virtue, the moralities”, and then: “Mindfulness is the lynch pin of it all.”
No-one can be virtuous if they are not in control, and no-one can be in control if they do not know half of what is going on in the mind. It is a long road to the virtuous state, the pure mind, but that need not worry us if we remember that, once we begin, the religious life is itself the way and the goal, a life of gradual growth and increasing self-knowledge.
Because of his associations with the Buddhist Society, Phiroz gave out much teaching of the Buddhist scriptures, and this inspired me to read some of the discourses of the Buddha, which otherwise I would have considered too difficult for me, or, dare I say it, too boring. But Phiroz had the magic touch with all religious scriptures, however antiquated or abstruse they might seem at first glance. What a treasure-house he opened up for all of us.
Let us share some of that treasure together. In his “Discourse on the Sure” (from the Middle Length Sayings, volume II, p. 81), the Buddha spoke thus:
There are these four kinds of persons existing in the world. What four? Here some person is a tormentor of self, intent on the practice of self-torment. Here some person is a tormentor of others intent on the practice of tormenting others. Here some person is both a self-tormentor and a tormentor of others. And here some person is neither a self-tormentor nor a tormentor of others, is here-now allayed, quenched, become cool, an experiencer of bliss that lives with self Brahma-become. In this case, householders, a Tathagata arises in the world… Destroyed is birth, brought to a close the Brahma-faring, done is what has to be done, there is no more of being such or so.
When this has been said, the Brahman householders of Sala spoke thus to the Lord: ‘Excellent good Gotama. It is as if, good Gotama, one might set upright that which had been upset … even so in many a figure has dhamma been made clear by the good Gotama. We are going to the revered Gotama for refuge … May the good Gotama accept us as lay-disciples going for refuge from this day forth for as long as life lasts.’
That exposition is a clear description of scapegoat psychology at work in the ancient world of the East, and, recognising it for what it was, the Buddha denounced it for two very good reasons. Firstly, it was tainting the religious ethos of the time, asceticism. There was a group known as the Jains who, in the name of non-violence, were carrying self-mortification to a dangerous degree and scorning others who were less extreme. The Buddha himself had come close to death testing their method and realised that without commonsense and mindfulness religion can easily become obsessive. From this he taught his Middle Way.
Secondly, the Buddha saw “tormentor” psychology as a very subtle and universal problem, and that it was in fact the underlying cause of ill for which he had been seeking in order to bring an end to suffering. From this he was able to expound his Four Noble Truths:
- Dukkha, suffering as a universal psychological condition
- The causes of dukkha as being:
- grasping or craving
- hatred or aversion
- Dukkha can be brought to an end
- The way to its ending is the Noble Eight-fold Path. The way of religious living
For the rest of his life the Buddha taught this way and devised many “skilful means”, methods and practices in order to enable people to bring about this healing transformation in their lives.
In part 4 we will look into some of them.
In setting out his Noble Eightfold Path to bring about the ending of the ill state, the Buddha gave eight requisites for the living of the religious life, which are as follows:
- Right View
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Contemplation
— a list which reflects the wisdom, the moral and the spiritual aspects of life.
To begin with, we might consider the implications of that word right. We may simply think of it in the context of conventional correctness and assume that external standards of right and wrong are sufficient for salvation. A better interpretation of the original Pali term sammā, here interpreted as right, is suggested in Christmas Humphreys’ Dictionary as supreme, the highest possible. This lifts its meaning out of a relative and social context into a personal and religious one. We are then confronted with the eternal religious question of how, with only our limited awareness and human fallibility we can hope to aspire to that transcendent “highest possible.”
The Buddha said: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, purify the mind, this the teaching of all the Buddhas”. We certainly cannot “cease to do evil” until we have familiarised ourselves with the forms that evil takes in the depths of the mind. It then becomes clear that the first step on the Eightfold Path, Right View, transcends any personal views and becomes “the supreme” all-inclusive viewpoint, extending and addressing itself even to the problems of unconscious “evil”, which lie in the darkness of the, as yet, unknown. Any interpretation of texts and scriptures, and indeed any self-examination also, confined only to the known will inevitably project the unknown onto “others”, create a new set of scapegoats, and end in general religious dissension with its history of violence, or in personal confusion, which can prevent us from achieving the peace and harmony that we seek.
This shows how important a matter scriptural interpretation can be. As Phiroz was wont to point out, the scriptures need to be presented anew for succeeding generations in ways which reflect the highest psychological and spiritual understanding, if they are to promote personal endeavour and growth to maturity. This Phiroz himself achieved in an outstanding way for religion in general, and Buddhism in particular, for our own generation.
Although Buddhism is not the only religion which reaches out for such “supreme” wisdom, it is true to say that Gotama Buddha had an understanding of the human heart and mind far in advance of the era in which he lived. He understood the simple heart which is dedicated to the way of faith, and he also appreciated the complexities and deep concerns which accompany those who are in the more sophisticated stages of psychological development, and so he addressed the Buddha Dhamma not just to one type or another but to the whole problem of the clarification and “the setting upright of that which has been upset”. For this purpose he devised a wealth of practices to deal with avijjā, ignorance, that dark unknowingness which he saw as a fundamental root of “tormentor psychology”.
Foremost among these Buddhist practices is a set of four meditations, the Brahmavihāras, or divine states, designed for this purpose. They are practices through which we can transcend our narrow self-concern and be opened up to the concerns of our common humanity.
The first of these practices is mettā, loving kindness. It has been said that eleven benefits accrue from its regular practice. Here five will suffice:
- We go to sleep happily
- dream no bad dreams
- wake happily
- are beloved by humans and non-humans
- are protected by devas, angels.
The first four offer healing of familiar modern problems, but number five suggests the awakening of those higher states of consciousness which are symbolised by celestial beings in all the religions.
It is comprised of six sequences in which good will is focused on people of our own sex. This immediately links it with the shadow side of the ego complex, which in dreams is always represented by a same-sex symbol.
Having started with a short period of mindful breathing to dissipate any restlessness, we draw on our capacity for goodwill, allowing it to permeate body, heart and mind, noting both the physical and emotional sensations which accompany its uprising.
- We then begin by directing it towards ourselves in the form of a wish: “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at peace with myself”. This should be easy to accomplish, but in some cases difficulty may arise; not everybody is at ease with themselves. Honesty is paramount for this practice to bear fruit, so if we have any problem at this stage, the thing to do is to direct it towards oneself as a child. In the Western environment it would be a good thing for everyone to spend some time directing a protective love and compassion to that inner child, because it helps to establish a friendly, conscious rapport with the origins of the ego complex as it developed with all the pains and problems entailed with that process, allowing the adult to reassure the child within.
- Having established peace with ourselves, we next visualise someone who arouses liking, respect and trust, and note the accompanying feelings for a few minutes.
- Then a close friend, a relative or anyone with whom we can empathize.
- Still maintaining these good feelings, introduce a neutral person.
- Next, somebody we do not like very much, noting how mood or sensations change, or whether they can be maintained unaltered. If at any time aversion is felt, return to the previous person until mettā has been restored.
- Finally, introduce an “enemy”, noting the reactions, and end with the restoration of the friendly mettā feelings.
The impediments to mettā are: aversion, too much emotion, or perfectionism, which arouses self-criticism and inflation. The main problem is probably the impatience from which all these things arise, but the way to deal with all of them is to treat ourselves as we would a child, with the same emotional content that we find within.
However, if we bring patience to bear, this practice has the potentiality for promoting healing of even the most deep-seated problems, depending on the depth and honesty we bring to it. It can address early ego complex problems, help us to correct a distorted self-image, and gradually to recognise and withdraw shadow projections. Even at the very simplest level, it is a valuable exercise in goodwill and brotherly love.
The psychological safeguard here, in dealing with such deep problems, and possibly disturbing material, is that it is done within the framework of religious practice, and, in the presence of a teacher, it can provide a secure religious environment for spiritual adjustments which otherwise might be too painful. Even without a teacher, our own patience and compassion towards ourselves is safeguard enough, as we simply practise each stage for as long as it naturally takes before we go on to the next one. Jung used to tell his patients:
“All haste is of the devil”. How right he was!
Following mettā practice, the second of the Brahmavihāras, the divine abidings, is karuṇā, compassion. With mettā as the foundation of our house, compassion can more easily be built into the structure. Compassion means passion-with, so the time has come to open up and to widen the horizon with passion. In the religious context passion is linked to patience and the endurance of pain, and passionate means easily moved, so it is a very interesting word implying a steadfast attitude to the endurance of one’s own pain, and yet having a readily available sympathy and understanding of the suffering of others. Often these two qualities tie in very appropriately when we meet with those whose situation can only be helped through empathy in a necessary process of patient endurance. When there is a quick solution to a problem, it is very gratifying to be able to offer it, but when there is no such remedy we should not think that there is no remedy at all. Being with that person patiently in the long term may be our greatest gift to them. The Buddha said that patience is the greatest austerity, so patience is not a light undertaking, but we grow stronger as we put it into practice.
The third of the Brahmavihāras is muditā, sympathetic joy, the next floor of the house. This is more subtle, less easy to recognize and practise, because it is not just a simple matter of joining in the jollifications, although that comes into it, but it requires us to overcome envy in all its devious forms. Envy arises not only from ambition and greed but from an attitude of begrudging to others such pleasures as we may not be enjoying in our own lives, and so it is bound up with our competitiveness, and thus is the very core of the divisive sense of self. We need the underpinning of our mettā and karuṇā in order to build this rare dwelling place for the heart, because not until we have faced up to those dark impediments to the sharing of joy will we be able to experience the true empathy which is the portal to all forms of unity: to the understanding of self and other, to communion, to healing, and by practice and process, to the realization of holistic consciousness, which is the ultimate integration of heart and mind.
Whilst inviting us to practise and to experience these divine states, Buddhism is also revealing the painful truth of the ill state, something which is clearly described by Phiroz in The Heart of Religion, p.152:
It is a mistake to try and get rid of suffering, or to avoid it or prevent it. Suffering is the inevitable consequence of evil. Wisdom lies in understanding suffering and evil. Understanding suffering does not mean avoiding it or preventing it because I fear or dislike it, nor being rid of it by conquest. It means, among other things, that I must see that I cannot separate out the environment, myself, and evil and suffering into watertight compartments. I and my world are tied together by the whip-knot of evil … My neighbour too is knotted, for his world and my world are but one world; and he too is in tears. Suffering is not simply individual suffering, an isolated phenomenon. It is part and parcel of the becoming process, involving each and every person.
The gradual process of the understanding of evil and suffering through religious practices helps to prepare the heart for the fourth of the Brahmavihāras, upekkhā, equanimity. This serene condition comes about as a consequence of the previous three practices, as we gradually cease to fear and deny the evil and suffering of life, and come to see it for what it is, how it arises and passes away. Until we know it and understand it we can never transcend it, but, brought to consciousness and acknowledged, it is comparable to the redemption of the shadow material, and those hitherto unconscious complexes which otherwise, all too often, disrupt our peace. Upekkhā is an even-handed, non-judgmental state of mind necessary for the deeper practices.
In The Heart of Religion on page 318 Phiroz wrote:
When there is non-attachment in mindfulness, then there is equanimity, upekkhā, necessary for that meditation which is communion.
So these abidings support, encourage and develop one another, they are part of a whole practice. And on page 377, he writes:
If the Divine Abidings can be realized, it also means that the meditator can enter upon and abide in the profound modes of awareness. The two interdepend. When the mind glows with unlimited loving-kindness and compassion, all sense of otherness in relation to any person vanishes. Loving one’s neighbour as oneself is a realized fact. In these profound meditative states, one sees the light of the soul of one’s neighbour and knows his destiny and fate. Such a meditator is fit to be a teacher.
From a beginning of something as simple and as human as loving-kindness, the path through the ethical life to ultimate realization can unfold. How can one resist the invitation to try?
May all beings, without exception, be well, may they be happy, may they be at peace.