“On this level, the only question which matters, whether someone is ruler of the Roman Empire or a humble fisherman, is what sort of person they are. How do they measure up inwardly to the challenge of what it is to be human? Are they centered on the ego or on the Self? Are they weak, self-centered, heartless, greedy, vain, proud, cruel, treacherous, mean-spirited, lustful, bad-tempered, vengeful, intolerant, narrow-minded, humorless, lazy, irresponsible and ultimately immature? Or are they centered on that deeper ego-transcending level of the personality which can make them strong, selfless, loving, generous, modest, self-effacing, compassionate, loyal, understanding, good-humored, self-disciplined, even-tempered, merciful, tolerant, hard-working, responsible and ultimately mature?”
The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker
In Mahayana Buddhism a distinction is made between loving-kindness and compassion. Compassion is the aspiration to relieve the suffering of others. Loving-kindness is the aspiration that all beings might be happy. Wanting one implies the other. Both are said to be boundless aspirations in that they are all inclusive, shutting no-one out under any circumstances. In Christianity the mercy of divinity, forgiveness, offered by Christ on the cross is also said to be all inclusive, shutting no-one out under any circumstances. These aspirations have a boundless quality to them as they are experienced when they are subjects for contemplation. The desire, hope, and aspiration can increase further and further, the clarity of its pure purpose becoming more and more penetrating and all pervasive.
In a typical contemplative progression we first wrap these heart-thoughts around our loved ones. Loving-kindness and compassion, are these not almost the very definition of love? To want another to be free of what hurts and pains them can become an ego-transcending ‘urge’ as strong as anything else within our psyche. This is an element of our makeup quite capable of sweeping us away with its intensity. The same purity that makes the experience of compassion and love feel so fundamental to our very being is accompanied by the hope that the loved one will enjoy a true and honest happiness within their experiences of living.
As the contemplation progresses these aspirations are extended to eventually include all sentient beings. First we arouse loving-kindness and compassion for those we love and then to those we feel neutral about and finally to those we hate. Sometimes the contemplation starts with the enemies or if a visualization is involved you place them close by, in front of oneself and one’s loved ones. Who could benefit more from the healing these emotions of love offer? What greater good might come to many than when a tyrant sees the light and is transformed?
Even the most hardened criminals will have moments in which these insights breakthrough and lay their claim to the inner world of the conscience. They are an inescapable wisdom born from deep within their own subjectivity. Perhaps the crack in the armor will be cheapened by sickeningly sweet sentimentality yet still it will carry its archetypal message. These powerful desires for another’s well-being touch on the core meaning our species finds and passes on in all of our stories and mythologies.
The human psyche is molded around its archetypal themes from the early days of our nursery rhymes. As we grow through the developmental stages evolution has designed for our bodies, our minds similarly mature to a fuller expression of their inborn potential. The mind of the infant is anything but a blank slate. It is primed for far-reaching reactions to particular inputs. Language acquisition is known to work by key sensory experiences happening in key developmental periods. Children unfortunate enough to have not been exposed to language during these critical developmental periods are never able to become fluent; the language acquisition centers of their brains are not functionally wired up. The exposure of the brain to its key archetypal stimuli follows the same type of process. Working with these key images is how awareness navigates its journey to an adult consciousness.
One interesting hypothesis is that we do not have the instincts to guide us to psychological maturity and so have invented archetypal storytelling to make up for it.
As I have mentioned before we feel these things in our guts or, as we say, in our bones. Our minds are swimming in a sea of stories as all-pervasive for them as the atmosphere is for our bodies. Those tales with a happy ending feature protagonists working in harmony with the ego-transcendence of loving others. Those tales that end in tragedy are populated by characters that are seduced, confused or bewitched by the ego’s selfishness. Depending on which story we find ourselves in – and they lived happily ever after, or, they died a tragic and often violent death.
The blindness of the ego cannot weigh the value of other sentient beings equal to itself, yet this is just what objectivity demands. Delusional on this score, the protagonists of tragedy are kicking against the very grain of human reality. All such schemes are destined to fail. But the perpetrators are not the only ones to suffer. The dark tales also warn us that an enormous amount of pain and suffering can be inflicted on the people around the characters swirling down the drain. Families, communities and whole nations can be drawn into the maelstrom.
Even the horror tales full of monsters and murderers pay a backhanded compliment to the same basic plot of our emotional lives. In some of these tales evil seems to be in ascendancy yet the tales need a context that implicitly recognizes the moral order of the human universe. Dracula and Hannibal Lecture carry the same signal; they are outsiders throwing the structures of ‘sane’ humanity into stark relief.
Armed with our stories we face the news.
It is hard to look at the most painful places in our world, where the suffering is the greatest. This is in part because it is frightening when we recognize how often passionate emotions are fueling these tragedies. War, rape and torture are often accompanied by hot heads aflame with anger and hate.
Grinding poverty, structural inequality and the huddling masses of refugees are no less the result of highly charged emotional decisions and reactions but this is harder to see since the fateful decisions are a few steps removed from their fruit. All the emotions related to establishing boundaries between ‘us and them’ are at play, designing and sustaining these long term attributes of globalization.
When we turn our attention to the interpersonal world the emotions are equally suspect. The great plays, novels, and movies are shaped around the grasp of life’s imperatives and fundamentals we all share. This is why when we see a comedy or a tragedy we instantly understand somewhere deep inside why things turned out the way they did. This is also why when the archetypal dramas are thwarted, as they so often are in modern arts, they leave us filling unsatisfied, as if they were somehow unfinished works or no more than the husk of the right symbols but missing something needed to make them real for us.
Our artists are reflecting our headlines. They bring us crimes of passions, crimes of greed, and crimes of desperation – each are daily fare on several programs throughout the world. The choice offered is abundant. It is everywhere the same: the emotions are capable of destroying lives, inflicting pain on oneself and others, twisting reason around blind fundamentalism and ideologies and generally increasing the quota of suffering on this planet.
All of this is true, a part of the primal human experience throughout our history. The most beautiful and most profound aspects of the human experience are accompanied by emotion, yet it is just this which is also capable of driving us crazy.
Fear of what our emotional nature can do has led to attempts to repress it. This is most obvious in all those attempts to explain the power of reasoning as a skill divorced from values. This is a particularly seductive temptation for our Faustian culture and one which we have already touched on in previous posts. Less obviously, much of what parades around as deeply emotional entertainments and works of art are no more than the empty shells of sentimental manipulations of all the right symbols and serve to shock and titillate the ego more than they serve to teach, train and guide the evolutionary well-springs within us. All this ‘If it feels good do it, just do it’ ethos accompanied by cheap sex and violence is a set of sham feelings, created pre-packaged to suppress awareness of the real emotional depths. To a first degree of accuracy we could say that all these fruits of the Romantics are simply the most sophisticated means of repressing our emotions we have yet hit upon. I would suggest it is wise to recognize the power these things have and choose very carefully from the many offerings which ones we will allow our minds to participate in.
As contemplatives we work with what we hope to be techniques that encourage the wisdom that sees its way to living meaningfully, as an aid and help-meet to ourselves and others. Recognizing the nature of the mind we gently seek to train it. In these efforts the calming peace of meditation, with its invocation of the sympathetic nervous system’s contentment circuits, acts as a cooling, refreshing breeze, bringing a spaciousness that defeats the claustrophobic strangulation of emotional clinging.
Ego would like nothing more than to be able to dominate the emotional life. Perhaps the central temptation anyone on a spiritual path needs to be wary of is the desire to have bliss on demand through the use of meditative techniques. The many lives blasted by dabbling in advanced techniques without years of preparation witnesses that these are very real dangers on the mystic paths. The emotions are elements of our design that far exceed the ego’s grasp and lie outside its control. (Part of what Sigmund Freud taught his suffering patient was to recognize that we are not responsible for our feelings.) The contemplative’s gentle touch expresses a willingness to wait on them, allowing them to express themselves in their own good time. In our practice we concentrate on learning to abide in a peacefully content place from which we can observe the comings and goings of all the elements of our inner landscapes, emotions included.
This trains us in the opposite of clinging to our desires. We learn to appreciate a holy indifference. It teaches us slowly to be able to celebrate that which is beautiful, abide with that which is uncomfortable and endure that which pains us. Eventually such practice develops a type of presence within the re-wired nervous system that remains undimmed by the comings and goings of external life. We participate in what the monastics of the West have called practicing the presence of god.
In these fruition states of human potential we glimpse something of the real human dignity that hides within us all. Our saintly teachers embody the virtuous aspects enumerated above by Christopher Booker, becoming lights in our world. They encourage us in the day by day, step by step, drip by drip work of psychological maturation. And they tell wonderful stories.