Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Going nowhere

I am increasingly suspicious of forms of spirituality that want to take me somewhere, on some kind of journey. Human growth and personal development may have its place but I have the feeling that Ann Faraday is on to something here.

All my thoughts, hopes and fears about the future have changed radically since I fell asleep one night in October 1985 and woke next morning without a self. I don't know what happened to it, but it never returned.

This should have been an occasion for some regret, since I quite liked myself - a self born long ago when I first discovered that other people didn't automatically share my private inner space and couldn't intrude upon it without my permission. Since then I'd worked hard on myself to make it a good one, mainly by praying to God to remove the bad thoughts and feelings surrounding it. I soon came to think in terms of my Higher self and lower self - and hoped that God would always love me and forgive me so long as I at least aspired towards the Higher and abjured the lower. The Higher Self, I decided, was probably my soul which would eventually unite with God and live happily ever after.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise in later life to learn that the Soul is not to be sought in the heavens but in the depths of the psyche, especially in the lower or shadow part which I'd tried to disown. Through psychotherapy and dream-work, I discovered that far from diminishing myself, all those buried fears, guilts and weaknesses brought a welcome softness and subtlety to life. In fact they led me on to even deeper archetypal encounters which expanded the boundaries of self into the greater collective psyche of humankind.

What had begun as a journey of purification had become one of completion or individuation, and I looked forward to attaining what Jung called Wholeness, the Self or God before too long; all I needed, or so I thought, were just a few finishing touches.

In the meantime, in true Human Potential fashion, I was furthering all this growth by 'taking care of' and 'looking after' whichever self I happened to be into at the time. I no longer berated myself for making mistakes and was usually able to say "no" without feeling guilty. All things considered, including many years of meditation practice, I rated myself at around 3.5 on the Transpersonal Ladder of Enlightenment.

It was at this point in my imagined psycho-spiritual development that I lost myself. To compound the irony, before going to sleep that night in October 1985, I'd actually done a 'self-remembering' exercise for precisely the opposite purpose - to centre my energies in such a firm and clear sense of self that it would continue into the dreaming process instead of getting lost in it, thereby giving me a lucid dream in which I was aware of dreaming. I went off dutifully repeating the words "I am, I am, I am, ...", a la Sri Ramana Maharshi, and was more than a little astonished to awaken some hours later, laughing because the pundits had got it wrong: the truth was much more like "I am not." I was emerging from a state of consciousness without any I or self at all, a state that can only be described as pure consciousness. I can't even say I experienced it, because there was no experiencer and nothing to experience.

And far from being a matter of regret, this loss of self came as a distinct relief. In fact when bits and pieces of my old identity - hopes, fears, goals, memories, spiritual aspirations and all the rest - began to recollect as I awoke, I tried to fight them off, in much the same way, perhaps, as the reluctant survivors of Near-Death Experiences resist the return to life's little boxes. But unlike those survivors, I brought back no blissful sense of divine presence or of a mission to accomplish, nor even intimations of immortality - just a total inner and outer Empty-ness which has remained ever since.

This may not sound like a happy state of affairs to a psychotherapist, who would probably see in it evidence of a mid-life crisis or incipient psychosis. But it is far more interesting than that. I experience this Empty-ness as a boundless arena in which life continually manifests and plays, rising and falling, constantly changing, always changing and therefore ever new. Sometimes I feel I could sit forever, knowing myself as not only a fluid manifestation of life within the arena, but also as the Empty-ness which holds it. If this is psychosis, everyone should have one, and the world would be a far more serene place for it.

. . . as a psychologist, my hopes are something like this:

I would challenge the ancient creed that developing a strong self-sense is essential in rearing children with adequate strength for living. Surely it is possible to encourage them to find a fluid identity within the constantly-changing play of life, not seeking permanence of any kind, particularly that of self. Perhaps we could even teach them to see and enjoy themselves as unique 'nonentities', instead of separate hidebound selves obsessed with survival.

In psychotherapy, I would hope for a radically new approach to those who suffer from inner emptiness. Instead of working towards filling that void with new purpose, direction and meaning, I would aim to assist sufferers to go even deeper into Empty-ness and discover its true nature. I would actively discourage all ideas of inner-journeying towards wholeness or paths to enlightenment. These serve merely to postpone happiness here and now, and they build up the self-illusion.

In the spiritual domain, I would fire all gurus and transpersonal psychologists who use stage-by-stage models of self-development ( explaining experiences like mine as fifth level transient nirvikalpa samadhi - or whatever). And I would like to see the term Self with a capital S: Self-actualisation, Self-realisation, Self-transcendence - expunged from psychological and spiritual literature, reserving the word strictly for the empirical self of everyday life. It is the whole obfuscating concept of self which needs to be transcended, for in my experience there has never really been any self to transform, actualise, realize or transcend.

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