Friday, September 30, 2005

When Things Fall Apart (Pema Chodron)

This book is a collection of independent talks that were given at various times by Pema Chodron, the principal teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners. Her editor sifted through the years of material to produce a large portion of the contents of this book. According to Pema, it was only later, once the book was more or less complete that a theme seemed to emerge. First, the great need of loving-kindness towards oneself, and developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others. The second underlying theme was, "dissolving the dualistic tension between us and them, this and that, good and bad, by inviting in what we usually avoid." Pema's teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, described this as "leaning into the sharp points."

The depth, pertinence, and usefulness of these talks are really quite astounding and even mind-altering. Something at a deeper level resonates with what is being said. Reading this material is like being told something you already know to be true, but you're not sure why or how. It's a fascinating experience of having been there before, in a kind of pleasantly incessant deja vu. Pema adopts a very down-to-earth writing style that gets to the heart of the matter in a language everyone can understand.

The first chapter is entitled Intimacy with Fear. The underlying idea is that we need to learn to stop running away from fear, and instead have the courage to embrace it when it arises. Further, that fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. A powerful insight that tells of a kind of emotional/psychological barrier, beyond which lies some deep truth about ourselves or the world. I am reminded of Dante's Inferno, and the sage advice that the only way out of hell is through it's centre. As Pema says, "No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear."

It is from the second chapter that the title of the book takes it's name: When Things Fall Apart. We learn that Pema began her journey with the advent of what some would call a genuine spiritual experience: standing in front of her adobe house drinking tea, the car drove up and the door banged shut; her husband walked around the corner and told her without warning that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. "When things fall apart and we're on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that's really swell." The idea is brought home in the famous quote by Karlfried Gras von Durkheim, "Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us."

The next chapter is entitled This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher. The basic idea here is to understand that everything we need to develop on our path is happening right now, that we don't need to create artificial situations which test our limits. It happens naturally all the time in the present moment. As Pema states, "Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can't stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain." Instead, when we meet our edge, we can realize that we have a profound growth opportunity before us. To just be with the experience, allowing the quality of what we're feeling to pierce us to the heart, without reacting or repressing. "Reaching our limit is like finding a doorway to sanity and the unconditional goodness of humanity, rather than meeting an obstacle or a punishment."

Skipping ahead we come to a very interesting chapter entitled Not Causing Harm. The essential idea here is to be mindful of everything happening inside and around us, so we can see things as they arise and before they acquire enough power to control us. Such mindfulness affords us the space to choose how to respond, rather than responding by force of habit or impulsively. In this way we avoid causing harm to others and to ourselves. This idea is very much related to the notion of refraining. However, this refraining is not repression, but rather holding back from habitual or compulsive behaviour, and creating a little space between stimulus and response. Interestingly, Pema states that when we begin to create space, we begin to approach an underlying groundlessness, a kind of free-flow or free-fall that we experience as restlessness, agitation, or fear. "There's something there in us that we don't want to experience, and we never do experience, because we're so quick to act." However, regularly experiencing this phenomenon, with calmness and acceptance, is key to being free from the grip of the compulsive ego, and gives way to the birth of genuine free will.

Another extremely insightful chapter is entitled Eight Worldy Dharmas. This title alludes to one of the classic Buddhist teachings on hope and fear which concerns four pairs of opposites: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, and fame and disgrace. The idea is that we desire and are attached to the "positive" experiences of life while we dislike and reject the "negative" experiences. The key to understanding lies in seeing the powerful movements of mind to have one and avoid the other. This is what keeps us stuck in the pain of samsara—the continual habitual seeking for pleasure and running away from pain. So how can we be free from these patterns? Pema advises us to begin by noticing how we react when someone praises us, when someone blames us, when we suffer a loss, and so on. Do we just experience things? Or do we unconsciously fashion fantastic stories to accompany experiences thereby getting hooked and caught up in hope and fear—of wonderful and terrible phantoms of the mind that lie outside of what's happening in the present moment? "We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace. A more practical approach would be to get to know them, see how they aren't all that solid. Then the eight worldy dharmas become the means for growing wiser as well as kinder and more content." Interesting. Closely related to this is the idea of how, "... [w]e carry around a subjective reality that continuously triggers our emotional reactions." We unfailingly misinterpret statements, due to our conditioning and patterns, and spin off in these patterned directions. If we could only observe how we do this, bring this process into consciousness, we would achieve a level of freedom from these unconscious habitual processes. We would be able to see them as they arise, and we would no longer allow ourselves to spin. It is precisely these emotional reactions that manifest when we get hooked by one of the eight worldy dharmas, which in turn form the foundation of our subjective reality.

One last chapter worth mentioning which is particularly interesting from a practical perspective is entitled Going Against the Grain. It provides a concrete psychological tool for dealing with all kinds of physical, emotional, and psychological pain and turmoil. In fact, the method introduced as tonglen practice is more than just a tool for dealing with pain: it repatterns the mind by transforming old patterns of reaction and repression into new patterns of calmness and acceptance. But it goes further; tonglen practice actually reconditions the mind to be an agent of positive change, rather than solely a passive recipient and endurer of pain and suffering. The practice involves breathing in the pain of others (or our own), while allowing oneself to fully experience the pain, and breathing out calmness, kindness, or whatever we feel is appropriate in the present situation. One does not just visualize or imagine, but one actually attempts to create the feelings of calmness and kindness, while radiating these feelings outward with each out breath, focusing these feelings on the person(s) of interest. A powerful technique employing feelings and emotions to reprogram negative mental patterns into more constructive forms.

This is just a sampling of some of the material covered in the book. After reading, I found myself in better spirits, and better equipped to deal with the pressures and difficulties of modern life. I also found myself employing some of the techniques described in my daily interactions, resulting in a capacity to see through some of the games we play, and an ability to touch the underlying pain with a sense of acceptance and forgiveness. I'm grateful that Pema chose to share her extraordinary insights on the skillful handling of human pain and suffering. It is clear that she has been through difficult times herself, and is offering the benefit of the fruits of her personal experience, supported by an all-too-uncommon understanding of human nature.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Kosmic Consciousness (Ken Wilber)

There is an incredible amount of material covered in Ken Wilber's Kosmic Consciousness. The ten CD set follows a question and answer format led by Sounds True publisher Tami Simon. The interview is prefaced with Tami's motivation for conducting the interview, "... My goal was simple and direct: to hear Ken Wilber describe the integral model in his own spoken words. And to bring forward the aspects of his teaching work that could provide the most benefit to human evolution."

The first five CD's deal with the nuts and bolts of the integral model itself, including quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types. The second five CD's deal with topics of consciousness and development as seen through the lens of the integral model, and application of the integral model towards a wide variety of contemporary issues.

What is an integral model? In brief, an integral model or map is something that takes into consideration all other maps that came before, giving value and a place to all other points of view. The basic tenet is: everyone is right, but not everyone is equally right, and the degree of rightness depends on one's level of understanding. Integral means inclusive, balanced, and comprehensive.

In Ken Wilber's paradigm, quadrants represent one of the five foundations of the integral model. Quadrants refer to the different perspectives in which human beings can look at things. There are three fundamental perspectives: "I", "we", and "it" (a fourth perspective, "its", is also included as this adds a little extra granularity on the map, and since collections or systems of "its" behaves a little differently than an individual "it"). There is a strong correspondence between the quadrants, "I", "we", and "it", and the philosophical concepts of the beautiful, the good, and the true. Beauty deals with art, aesthetics, and self-expression. Goodness deals with morals, and ethics. And truth deals with science and objective truth. The main mistake of modern society is the attempt to reduce these perspectives to one of the other forms. For example, subjective idealists tend to reduce everything to the beautiful, the subjective, or "I"; post modernists tend to reduce everything to the good, the moral, or "we"; and material reductionists tend to reduce everything to science, the objective, or "it". This reductionism yields catastrophic consequences in the psychological health of human beings, our relationships, and our environment.

The second foundation of the integral model is the notion of lines of development. The idea was originally put forward by Howard Gardner in his model of multiple intelligences. There are perhaps two dozen different types of conventional intelligences. And these intelligences can be more or less developed depending on various factors, including biology, predisposition, environment, society, family, upbringing, etc. It is not necessary to be fully developed in all the different intelligences, however it is necessary to be aware of potential problem areas, so that they do not hinder one's overall development. That being said, there are a few lines of development which are particularly important. These are the lines of moral development, needs development, self or ego development, and values development. Further, the cognitive line of development is also particularly important, as this underlies our capacity to understand and take different views, which is necessary for advanced moral development (see the work of Carol Gilligan for more information on moral development). One of the biggest problems in modern society is the presence of a high level of cognitive development (with associated advanced technological capacity) coupled to a relatively low level of moral development. The result is widespread crime, oppression, and war.

The third foundation of the model is the concept of stages of development. This idea was originally put forward by Jean Gebser in his work on cultural evolution. There is a strong parallel between the stages of development of a culture, and the stages of development of an individual. The integral model adds some granularity to the original model by considering seven basic stages of development: archaic, ego-centric, conformist, rational, pluralistic, integral, and transpersonal.

Stage 1: Archaic – all lower stages leading up to human development
Stage 2: Ego-Centric – Gilligan's selfish stage (magic)
Stage 3: Conformist – traditionalism, pre-rational (mythic)
Stage 4: Rational – modernism, formal, highly individualistic
Stage 5: Pluralistic – post-modernism, multiculturalism, post-rational
Stage 6: Integral – consciously aware of holistic outlook (second tier)
Stage 7: Transpersonal – all higher stages

These stages of development however are not fixed and rigid, as it is common for individuals to have a developmental center of gravity at one stage, but aspects of themselves at higher or lower stages. Also, one's culture is heavily influential, as it will tend to pull individuals up to the developmental centre of gravity for that culture. However, this is a double-edged sword because this cultural centre of gravity also tends to pull individuals back down to that culture's level if one seeks to go beyond.

There is also an interesting discussion on what Ken Wilber calls the "Pre-Trans Fallacy." This is essentially the tendency to treat pre-rational and post/trans-rational states as the same. Since they are both non-rational, on the surface they may look the same. However, the underlying difference is that individuals in post/trans-rational states have passed through the rational stage of development, and so their actions are based on something other than simple tradition, belief, or superstition. As an example of the kind of errors that can be made, Freud took every trans-rational state he saw and reduced it to an infantile pre-rationale, regression-to-the-womb-type state. Jung, on the other hand, tended to take some pre-rational states and elevate them to a kind of trans-rational spiritual glory. The primary test to determine if someone is operating at a pre-rational vs. post/trans-rational level is to see if they treat their mythology "as if" it were true, rather than "it is" true (see the work of Joseph Campbell for more information on mythology).

Ken Wilber speaks of what Clare Graves called a momentous leap from first tier to second tier development. First tier is the equivalent of all stages up to and including the pluralistic stage five. In first tier development, people have "deficiency needs," and are motivated out of lack. In second tier development, people have "being needs," and are motivated out of a feeling of fullness. When moving from first tier to second tier, two things happen: first, fear drops off across all domains. The second thing that happens is that there is an intuitive appreciation of the first five stages of development. Stage six is the first stage that lets all prior stages be themselves. Fear drops off because individuals are no longer so strongly identified with their individual self. These stages transcend individuality, so some call them transpersonal. Wherever there is identification, there is fear, as you are defending something from annhilation, threat, hurt, pain, shame, etc.

The fourth foundation of the integral model is the notion of states. According to the model, there are three great states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. Each of these states has an energetic support: gross (physical), subtle (non-physical), and causal (formless). You can experience any of these states at any stage of development, and when you do, you will interpret these states according to the stage you are at. So what is the relationship between states and stages of development? The more you are (skillfully) plunged into non-ordinary states of consciousness, the more you disidentify with your present stage of development, and begin to identify with higher stages. Methods to induce non-ordinary states include meditation, various types of yoga, body practices, breathing exercises, etc. This continuous disidentification with all objects arising in awareness is the essence of what is called "spiritual" practice. Attaining this as a permanent stage takes years of development. At that point, it is sometimes called subject permanence or constant consciousness. It's a subtle tacit awareness that has a threat of continuity through all states. Therefore, the "self" or "ego" developmental line (through nonidentification) is perhaps the single most important line for what is called spiritual development.

The fifth and final foundation of the integral model is types. The classic example is male and female types. All human beings have both types, but one tends to dominate. We can get in touch with either the maculine or feminine types in the gross, subtle, and causal realms, giving a unique masculine or feminine texture to experience (see the work of David Deida for more information on masculine and feminine types). Other well-known types include Myers-Briggs types, which includes feeling, thinking, sensing, and perceiving. Another is The Enneagram which includes the nine basic personality types, all of which exist at each of the seven stages of development (see the work of Helen Palmer for more information on personality types). We can even use astrology as a kind of typology, with each astrological type occurring at all of the seven stages of development.

Ken also speaks of developing "witness" consciousness and its relationship to EEG evidence of brain states associated with Satori, how meditation accelerates vertical development, and gives some highlights of his own personal experience. In relation to integral transformative practice, Ken speaks about the uneven development of spiritual teachers, choosing a spiritual teacher, the worlds of dream and wakefulness, and exercising body, mind and spirit in self, culture and nature. Another fascinating area discussed is what Ken calls the "basic moral intuition" and the principle of the greatest depth for the greatest span. He discusses this idea in relationship to animal rights, abortion, capital punishment, war, diplomacy, and peacemaking. Finally, Ken discusses application of the integral model to art, business, law, politics, science, and spirituality.

After listening, I was left with a feeling of awe and clarity, and a great deal less confusion. A veritable tour de force. Ken Wilber's integral model appears to be the only truly unifying map of human consciousness and evolution, applicable to all fields of study, capable of accommodating all points of view.

A brilliant philosopher/psychologist/scientist, a captivating storyteller.