Tag Archives: Psychology

Why it’s OK that Mara Returns: Transforming the Functions of Self-referencing-related Stimuli Through Meditation

“Mara returns” is a phrase commonly used in Dharma talks given by instructors belonging to the Insight Meditation tradition (Jack Kornfield in particular). Mara is the name given to the satanic figure of pre-modern Indian mythology, who is depicted as the author of illusion leading to clinging; perpetuating the round of rebirth and suffering for all non-liberated beings. What is this illusion that leads to clinging? In simple terms, it is the illusion of self-identification – that is, the belief that experiential phenomena of any kind (mind or body, private or public, internal or external) can be accurately categorized as inherently-existing in the form of I, me, or mine. At the moment of his full awakening (or total unbinding), the Buddha is said to have successfully conquered the armies of Mara, liberating himself from clinging to anything as I, me, or mine; thus, becoming free from the round of perpetual rebirth and, most importantly, suffering.

However, although the Buddha had successfully conquered Mara, there are a number of stories in the Buddhist scriptures where Mara comes back to visit him. Being that Mara represents the illusion of inherently-existing selfhood, it would seem that the Buddha’s awakening did not entail a complete eradication of the privately experienced phenomena that was previously interpreted as a “self.” And yet, when Mara returns to visit the Buddha, the Buddha’s reaction is quite jovial and friendly. “Ah, my good friend Mara has come back to see me. Let’s have a visit!” So then, if the illusion itself was not permanently eradicated from the Buddha’s experience, what changed? More specifically, what processes are responsible for the reduction in suffering that is reported by so many meditation practitioners, both ancient and modern?

One possible explanation of why suffering can be alleviated through practicing certain types of meditation can be found by applying certain core concepts of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a purely psychological theory of human language and cognition based on a philosophy of Functional Contextualism. One such core concept of RFT is that the functions of stimulus relations are contextually controlled. To explain what this means, consider the following analogy. Let’s say you go to the zoo and visit the snakes exhibit. You may then peer through a clear glass cage into the eyes of a massive anaconda. This huge snake may even hiss at you, or snap its jaws in your direction (Yikes!). And while this may be startling to experience, consider the context: you’re standing on the other side of cage designed to keep the snake from being able to sink its teeth into your neck, or perhaps swallow you whole. In fact, there’s a good chance you would not have approached the snake at all had you thought you were in any real danger.

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. Let’s say you come home from work and head straight for the bathroom. You open the door and flip on the lights, and you see that on the floor directly in front of you is the same massive anaconda! How different do you think your emotional reaction would be from when you saw this same snake behind protective glass at the zoo? VERY different, right? In the simplest terms, the change in your emotional response to the snake is not due to the snake, but rather the context in which you encounter and experience the snake. This is an example of how the transformation of stimulus functions is contextually controlled. In other words, your response (i.e. function) to the snake (i.e. stimulus) was transformed when the context was changed (i.e. from the zoo to your bathroom).

How does this relate to meditation and liberating insight? Prior to beginning a meditation practice we grow up perceiving and engaging with the world in a particular way, and relating ourselves to it as if we were inherently-existing entities. There are many benefits to this kind of self-referencing. Without having a clear idea of who we are in relation to others, our ability to survive as an organism in our environment would be seriously impeded. Our physical bodies have specific needs, and we humans behave and speak in ways that aid us in manipulating our environment in order to get those needs met. Identifying as a self is an integral part of this process. Without the ability to develop self-referencing behaviors, I don’t think human beings would have survived – let alone thrived – as we have as a species on this planet. We are social animals, and socializing requires relationships. Relationships between humans require individuals – that is, separate selves.

However, this self-referencing behavior has a dark side; or, we could even say a Mara-side. For, this illusion of self could theoretically generate an infinite number of ways in which we can needlessly suffer. Of course, physical pain is a variety of suffering that is a common experience for all human beings, as it is necessary for survival. As far as I know, meditation cannot permanently alleviate all forms of physical pain. But, a huge amount of psychological suffering is brought into being through verbal and physical behaviors within a self-referential context. This psychological suffering is largely due to one’s attempt to control their unwanted inner experiences (i.e. private events) through grasping at something one thinks is better, resisting what one doesn’t like, and/or ignoring those aspects of experience that one considers neutral (those things that don’t stand out, or that are not seen as being important).

What I think the Buddha discovered, and I believe many people continue to discover today, is that by engaging in the skillful practice of meditation one can effectively make changes to the context of present experiencing in way that reveals features about experiential phenomena (i.e. stimuli) that is not otherwise directly perceived. This direct apprehension of phenomenal experience in a previously unknown way further alters one’s context, which can have the effect of transforming the functions of stimuli related to self-referencing. When self-referencing is perceived clearly just as it is – which is totally arbitrary, transient, inconstant – it becomes much less distressing over time. Some might even say that it is possible to completely alleviate the distressing function of stimuli related to self-referencing, which would be akin to the total unbinding (nibbana) purportedly attained by the historical Buddha. Whether or not this level of attainment is actually possible, there is a growing body of clinical literature that suggests it is possible to significantly reduce this form of distress.

What I want to make clear, though, is that it is not necessary for self-referencing stimuli to eradicated from one’s experience forever. Actually, I think that could be potentially harmful, for reasons already stated. I think this is what some meditation teachers mean when they say “Mara returns.” The illusion remains accessible to one’s experience, but it can be understood as being like a mirage rather than a concrete reality. No one would chase after a mirage if they knew, by direct experience, that it was truly a mirage. It doesn’t matter how many times the mirage returns to one’s experience – it’s still not an oasis that can quench our thirst. Therefore, it isn’t necessary to eradicate self-referential thoughts and perceptions from one’s experience. The activity of trying to eliminate phenomenal appearances is itself an aversive act, and thus a potential cause for further suffering. But, we can use contextual controls to transform the functions of self-referencing-related stimuli. That is, we can get to a place where Mara returns, but no longer bothers us.

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Psychological Mechanisms of Clinging and Release

[This is an adapted version of an email I sent to some of the other members of the Dharma Forum Refugee Camp community prior to its founding.]

Hey guys. I just finished up a sit and thought I’d share some of the things that I reflected upon afterward. It could make for an interesting discussion. If not, that’s OK.

In a message I sent you all not long ago, I wrote:

“This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that… [m]odels suck most of the time. It’s always better to approach this moment with openness and curiosity, and to ask, “Am I suffering? If so, how? What’s causing it?” When you notice the cause, and stick with it, the mind will eventually let it go. I think it’s much the same way as when your brain tells you to move your hand of the hot stove that is burning you. There’s isn’t much you need to actually do other than to let the wisdom of the dharma speak for itself.” (emphasis added)

There seem to be impersonal processes at work that lie beyond the reach of “doing.” “Doing” is what gets us into the mess we’re in (i.e. suffering). And yet, meditation is itself an activity of sorts; a “doing.” But it is a very special variety of activity. The only activity of its kind. It is the activity of engaging with phenomena in a way which reveals a deeper truth. And when that deeper truth is revealed and comprehended (which we can’t do by choice), the impersonal processes – the psychological ‘mechanisms’ of clinging and release – do something. Or rather, they stop doing something. They stop clinging. They release their grip.

This is fascinating to me. It’s such a paradox. There are intentional actions which will lead to a release that is totally beyond intention. Neither you nor I can simply decide to wake up, and then just do it. Nor can we simply decide to stop doing anything. For, it takes some degree of intention to set up the conditions that will eventually result in awakening/release.

In practice, this is exactly how it works. You practice noting, or choiceless awareness, or any other effective meditative technology. You recognize the deep features of present experiencing. You stop doing by allowing the context you’ve intended to create perpetuate itself with no further intention (which culminates in the Equanimity ñana, or “non-fashioning,” etc.). It hums along until awakening – be it cessation or realization of Emptiness – happens of its own accord.

I know this is just one way describe the process of what happens in meditation. But once again, I am struck by the notion that the Middle Path must include both doing and non-doing, effort and non-effort, intention and non-intention. It’s easy to see how classical Buddhist teachings like “non-attachment” can be so misunderstood in the present day, particularly in Western culture. On one level, non-attachment can be practiced on purpose. But at another, deeper level, non-attachment occurs through the result of practice, though of its own accord. To suggest that one should refrain from practice because they are “too attached,” is bad advice most of the time. If one does not utilize their free will as a human being to cultivate the appropriate setting, how and when will awakening occur?

I guess I’m saying that intention plays an important role on the path to awakening. But, awakening itself is not achieved through conscious intention alone. The mechanisms of awakening are impersonal, transcending the reach of human action. And yet, somehow what we choose to do right now can aid in cracking the code; or rather, the code cracking itself. Paradox at its best.

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The Paradoxical Theory of Change

One of my graduate school professors is a long-time Gestalt therapist. In our Group Dynamics class last night, he spent some time demonstrating how he would lead a counseling group on the topic of grief. At one point the classmates acting as clients were sharing their feelings of guilt, one by one, as though to communicate to the others that “I feel that, too.” Afterward, a student that was watching it all unfold said to the professor, “I noticed that at one time many of the clients were expressing their grief,” and then asked, “Now, isn’t that something we don’t want them to feel?” It seemed that he was worried that allowing other group members to validate the feelings of grief would reinforce the grief, making it worse. My professor replied something like, “Well, as a Gestalt therapist, I more or less subscribe to what might be called the Paradoxical Theory of Change, which says that in order for change to occur one must first be allowed to truly be who they are.”

His words really ‘rang a bell’ within me. I know from my meditation practice that progress occurs only when I fully recognize and accept my present moment experience (or, as I prefer to call present experiencing). I can see why the Gestalt community would speak of this process in terms of paradox, in that at first glance it seems contradictory for change to occur when one simply does nothing but allow experience to ‘be’. However, from a Buddhist perspective, we know of a little thing called impermanence. The truth is that experience changes on its own from moment to moment. It doesn’t need “my” help to change. The energy involved in trying to change is usually put to waste, in that it affects the natural flow of change in ways that result in changes unlike those which are most beneficial.

So, in most cases the best kind of action for change is non-action; the best path is a non-path; the best way to change is to stop trying to change. The Daoist teaching of wu-wei comes to mind, as well as Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching to be as you are. And it would appear that this is not only the case with meditation practice, but also within various areas of human psychology and even sociology (as there is also a Paradoxical Theory of Social Change).

For more information on the paradoxical theory of change from the Gestalt perspective, you may want to read The Paradoxical Theory of Change by Arnold Beisser, M.D.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

“I will call it the paradoxical theory of change, for reasons that shall become obvious. Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.”

[…]

“The Gestalt therapist further believes that the natural state of man is as a single, whole being — not fragmented into two or more opposing parts. In the natural state, there is constant change based on the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment”

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The Ego Revisited

The ego receives a bad reputation within many spiritual scenes. The truth is interdependence, they say, and the ego insists on its separateness. Ergo, the ego must die. Kill it! Annihilate every last trace of the ego and realize complete liberation!

Actually, this hardline stance against the ego isn’t as prevalent as it once was – thank goodness. With the help of communities like the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a healthy personal psychology is encouraged alongside the transpersonal and spiritual lines of development.

That’s not to say that this ego-hating tendency has been extinguished. As recent as a few months ago I had a conversation with a friend who had been teaching mindfulness at a University alongside a Zen teacher in the community. My friend told me that the teacher taught egolessness, in the literal sense, and that he thought it was achievable, and perhaps even healthy. This is, in my opinion, a wrong view.

Look what can happen when communities take this KILL THE EGO thing seriously. I recently read Andre van der Braak’s book Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, where he recounts his years as a senior student of the megalomaniacal Andrew Cohen (founder of EnlightenNext.org). “Impersonal enlightenment has to transform our lives;” writes van der Braak, recounting the teaching her received under Cohen; “we should banish any trace of a personal life. Our very reason for living should be dedicated to what Andrew calls ‘living for the sake of the whole’.” (van der Braak later concludes that ‘for the sake of the whole’ really meant ‘according to Andrew’s wishes.’)

Is this what the spiritual path is all about? Should we banish any trace of a personal life? Not at all. This teaching comes from a rather immature understanding of the role of ego in human development and the evolutionary process.

Take Ken Wilber, for example. His Integral paradigm involves moving through ever higher stages of development. Though rather than suggest that we are to banish the lower levels upon reaching a higher one, he adamantly affirms the idea that true developmental progress includes the process of transcending and including the lower levels. Otherwise, one’s identity becomes fractured, causing maladaptive beliefs and behaviors to arise. So if we are to move our identity beyond ego in a way conducive to true, healthy development, the ego has to be included.

Regarding the positive role of the ego in spiritual practice, the spiritual teacher and meditation instructor Anadi (formerly Aziz Kristof) has this to say:

“The traditional concept that the ego represents only ignorance and should be eliminated as such, [sic] has truly damaged a number of seekers. This misconception has created a real guild complex in the minds and hearts of all those who, for centuries, tried to eliminate the ego which they were. How can one annihilate who one is? The ego, in truth, represents itself a highly evolved state of consciousness, where the mind is able to create a self-referral. This is essential for further evolution as well as for spiritual awakening. […] It is ego which allows us to evolve and survive in the reality of time.” –The Human Buddha: Enlightenment for the New Millennium

According to Anadi, what truly separates man from other animals is the development of a self-referral (ego). Without the ego the journey toward higher consciousness would be impossible. In light of this, how can anyone think that the ego is like a wart or a boil that needs to be burned off before liberation is realized? In truth, the ego is re-contextualized when one awakens to their true nature – not abandoned. We learn that our identity may reach far beyond the small, constricted self in to a vast, open space of awareness which includes all things – yes, even the ego.

The next time you come across teachings about how evil the ego is, and how it ought to be annihilated, just remember one thing: the ego is just as real as anything else – that is, any-thing else. All things arise based on conditions. In order to awaken, you don’t need to annihilate your ego any more than you need to annihilate your left foot.

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Overcoming “Fight or Flight” in Meditation

We humans, over the span of millions of years, have evolved partly due to our ability to recognize harmful situations and either flee from them or eliminate them. Psychologists call this our “Fight or Flight” response. And while this is quite useful for staying alive and propagating our species, it has an adverse effect on making progress in meditation.

Running away from less than pleasurable experiences is precisely what NOT to do in meditation. Responding in such a way to feelings of aversion is part of what got us in to this mess of suffering in the first place*. It’s not that we should be like some unbalanced ascetic who goes looking for pain in order to purify our karma. That’s just as unskillful as running away from unsatisfactory experiences or chasing after pleasure. Rather, what we should learn to do is allow such experiences to come into our awareness and pay attention to what happens. In my experience, when an unsatisfactory thought or sensation arises there are three outcomes that may follow:

  1. It could go away. 
  2. It could persist.
  3. It could change.

Now, these three outcomes are true regardless of what I desire to occur. That is, unless I decide to change positions, or get up and stop meditating altogether. But then I’m right back where I started, running away from suffering as if in a game of cat and mouse (and of course, I’m the unlucky mouse). But if I resolve to infuse each and every unsatisfactory experience with mindfulness, I will make progress.

After coming to know this simple truth for myself, I made note of it in the form of a “rule” of meditation. The rule is: whatever is presenting itself in the present is exactly what needs my attention in order to make progress. If I ignore the discomfort and try to dwell on something else (e.g. what enlightenment will be like, or what stage comes next, what I want for lunch tomorrow, etc.), progress gets stunted.

My advice to you, oh reader, is to commit yourself to diving in to whatever experience arises in the moment. If you feel edgy, or tired, or angry, or painful, or anxious, or depressed, or lusty, or whatever else, you must continue to pay close attention to the experience in order to make progress. I know it seems counterintuitive to most every other situation you’ve ever found yourself in. Nonetheless, I sincerely encourage you to give it a try. Do not fight. Do not take flight. Stay right where you are give your fullest attention to what is actually occurring in the present and you will surely make progress.

*According to Buddhism, the three primary causes of suffering are greed, aversion, and delusion.

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