South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: The Alien Within.
Date: May 4, 1995 20:01


00:23 Siam Hotel; Mae Hong Son-Thailand :: 28 APR 95

We in the West have a notion of 'I' and 'self' that Buddhists in particular and Easterners in general do not share. For us, the individual is whole and differentiated from all other individuals. Our 'self' is a concept of our being that fully encompasses the essences of mind, body and spirit. This self is permanent, particularly and most importantly as pertains to that essence which is spirit.

Buddha's conception, that is, Siddhartha Gotama's, is pointedly different. The self is ephemeral, transitory, impermanent, as are all conditioned things. Take out a picture of your 'self' at a young age. No doubt it is a picture of the 'self' who grew up to be the 'self' who now holds the picture, but is it a picture of your 'self'? That young self in the picture was but a fleeting thing, a brief step along the path. Even as the photograph was taken it became someone else. As you begin reading this sentence you are a different self than from the self who finishes the sentence now.

Can 'self' be captured by a photograph? What does it mean when we say, "that's a picture of me when I was 10." Another Western aspect of self that conflicts with Buddhistic being is the differentiated wholeness of an individual. The I that my mind, body and spirit constitute represents a complete, singular entity. 'I' know myself, control my actions, employ my free-will to choose my path. But then who is it that in the nighttime dreams? Dreams are not the fruits of conscious effort of self. I, that is my Western 'self', observes the unfolding dream like a film. Who runs the projector? Not 'I'. More importantly, who wrote, produced and directed the nightmare that woke me up shortly after midnight tonight? I am split asunder.

In the West we call this other self the subconscious or 'the unconscious mind'. We then pass this off as a useful adjunct of our mind, a sort of percolator for our important, mysterious or dark thoughts. In the same way we think of a finger, the unconscious is differentiable from other parts of self but still just a part of the whole that is 'I'. We each call this part of our individual selves, my unconscious. "My unconscious repressed that memory." We don't even ask ourselves, "repressed that memory from whom?" The answer would be, "From me!" From I. From my 'self'.

We treat the unconscious as if it were another organ, or an appendage of the body. When I prick a finger the nerves relay this activity to my brain and my 'self' experiences pain. The finger does not act of its own volition to create the stimulus. This pain is an experience prompted by external stimulation. What external stimulation prompts a nightmare? What external stimulation creates grief? Emotional pain is an internal experience generated by ourselves. 'I' certainly do not will it to occur. We are caught in a trap. By tacitly acknowledging the separate unconscious, we acknowledge the alien within and can reconstitute our Western wholeness of self only by playing a word game, by saying 'my unconscious'.

To Westerners the unconscious has become an alien within us. It operates within its own volition that can never be significantly ascribed to conscious will, or to the 'free-willed self'. Science and philosophy have sought to understand the workings unconscious for millennia but are still at a loss to adequately explain it. Buddhists are interested not in explaining the unconscious, but rather in overcoming it and other unruly aspects of mind and cognition. What Westerners call the workings of the unconscious Buddhists simply ascribe to the whimsy of an unfettered mind. Buddhists seek instead the fetters, they seek mindfulness.

When we say, "the devil made me do it," the devil represents none other than our unconscious. When a person cracks under pressure and commits evil acts they defend it as 'temporary insanity'. That is, they lost control of their 'self'. Something else took over. This creates an obvious paradox within the Western notion of indivisible self in that when the self is guilty of some unpleasantry we are quick to dissociate our sane self from the alien that temporarily inhabited our bodies. Our notion of self seems contrived of convenience, so we can say, "It's not my fault." Conversely, when the unconscious dumps genius in our laps, when brilliant thoughts come seemingly out of thin air, as so often occurs in acts of creativity, we say "Inspiration comes from within." We accept credit but deflect blame.

[Note: read Brewster Ghiselin's "The Creative Process" for an excellent series of anecdotal writings on creativity by luminaries such as Einstein, Poincare, Poe and other artists, writers and scientists. Your understanding of intuition and inspiration will likely change.]

Interestingly enough, there is paradox in the Buddhist camp as well. To those who would plea temporary insanity the Buddhist would say, "Shame, Shame. You failed to be mindful of your actions." Whose hand holds the smoking gun? A Buddhist does not separate the actions of the self performed in a single moment from the ever-changing selves that preceded and succeeded it. What I did yesterday unconsciously and have thus forgotten today is as much a part of who I am at this very moment as the thought I now consciously commit to paper. A plea of temporary insanity makes as much sense to a Buddhist as the crumb-faced child who blames missing cookies on the actions of an imaginary friend. The unconscious is an imaginary culprit, a safe scapegoat that can neither be brought to trial or punished. The Buddha's position is that if our actions are for ill we have nothing to blame but our own lack of mental discipline and wisdom.

Developing mental discipline is arguably the fundamental Buddhist activity. It is an activity directed primarily at stilling, overcoming or simply recognizing the unconscious and other unruly mental activity. Within the Noble Eight-fold Path, the first three steps are means for the development of ethical thought and action, the next three are means for the development for mental discipline, the final two are means for the development of insight-wisdom, enlightenment. These final two steps can be taken only by those who've fully developed their mental discipline.

Mental discipline means, in a word, meditation, and all three of its steps lead toward adept meditation skill. I'll list them briefly.

Right Effort

Develop our willpower to change our habits of thought; develop the insight and intuition to perceive our states of mind.

Right Mindfulness

Develop unremitting awareness applied to every thought, word, deed-in order to keep one's mind in control of one's senses.

Right Concentration

Develop meditation skills for calming the mind and achieving insight-wisdom.

As modern mental therapy knows all too well, a patient must want to change. They must want it so much as to allow themselves to feel or appear ridiculous. They must want it so much as to give up what seem to be comforts but are actually impediments to actualisation, to achieving 'wholeness'. This is what is meant by Right Effort, prepare yourself to change your ways and then set about doing it with the best effort. For Westerners this also means prepare yourself for the ridiculous experience of initial meditation attempts.

Right Mindfulness is essentially beginning meditation. The intention of this step is to come to terms with the unruly nature of mind and the source of distractions. The primary motive of this step is to become as conscious of the ethical repercussions of our thoughts, sensations and deeds as to the process by which these occur. Of particular significance for Westerners: Buddha identified six senses, the regular 5 plus mind. This may seem unusual to Western thinking but if you consider our language patterns you should see it's not much of a stretch. We 'feel hurt' when someone near and dear leaves us. But who or what is inflicting the pain? It is our mind that both inflicts and 'senses' this emotional hurt. Rational Emotive Therapy, a school of psychiatric therapy, teaches this very lesson. We are the architects of our own emotional suffering and if we become mindful of this condition we can rationally control our emotional response. From somewhere in Nirvana, the spirit that was Siddhartha Gotama smiles broadly.

18:48 Bangkok Express train; Chiang Mai->Bangkok-Thailand :: 30 APR 95

Within an hour of Bangkok. I'll try to finish this off.

The third step of mental discipline, Right Concentration, is the means for developing that rational control of mind. Perhaps going back to beginning meditation will help a little. Try this exercise for ten, no, five minutes.

Sit comfortably in an upright position. Do this now. Breathe in . . . breathe out. Breathe in . . . breathe out. Clear your mind of everything else but the awareness of breathing in, and breathing out. If sensations or thoughts intrude on your awareness of breathing in and breathing out, acknowledge them then return to your breath.

Couldn't do it, huh? Five minutes, if you lasted that long, seemed like an eternity. I've tried this a few times before, without much success. That little crick in my neck breaks my concentration, or thoughts about what's for dinner and, oh yeah, I'm hungry. The biggest meditation killer is, "man, do I feel ridiculous or what?". For most first-timers it is a difficult exercise to maintain a still mind for more than a few seconds. Meditative adepts can go for hours. Think about the mental control involved to ignore physical discomfort and banish unruly thoughts for that period of time.

What is intruding is the uncontrolled mind, the uncontrolled self, if you will. This is the part of your mental capacity that works without you willing it, and with most of us, it works despite our willing it not to. Usually, we're not even aware of its activity, that is, we're unmindful of it. The trick of meditation, so I am told, is to first become aware of the activity and then worry about controlling it. This is the difference between Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration: awareness vs. control. There are a whole slew of different meditation exercises intended to develop mindfulness and concentration.

Eeep. only 13% more battery power. Off to the races!

OK. What we're really looking at is a methodology geared toward getting to know one's self, a self most Westerners would be pleased to simply ignore due to its apparent scientific unfathomability. The point of all this mindfulness and concentration is to come to grips with the way the senses and mind function, how the senses convert precepts to thoughts, to understand that uncontrolled self by mindfully experiencing your own 'self' rather than intellectually analyzing someone else's.

So the Alien Within is really our uncontrolled selves. It is not a separate force but one to which we are joined and must accept responsibility for even if we choose not to be mindful of it, or even aware of it. If while driving a car I become unmindful of the process of driving and cause an accident is the fault not mine? The same holds true for operating the mind, more true since the mind is a most deadly weapon in the wrong hands.

Now that I'm meditating, you ask, what am I going to learn about myself and just what explicitly in my uncontrolled self am I supposed to control? Ahhh, that knowledge comes with insight-wisdom. Those are the next two steps on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. Perhaps in the wee hours of someday soon I'll be jolted awake by another nightmare and receive the inspiration to talk about insight-wisdom. In the meantime, maybe I'll just work on that ridiculous meditation.

Ohhhhh, Money Makes Me Hum.
Ohhhhh, Money Makes Me Hum . . .

Maybe I'll just go climbing instead.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.
  graphical element Henry David Thoreau

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