Finally, one opens the circle, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
– Deleuze and Guattari
Who am I? Sitting with spine erect, immersed in silence, this question takes on a greater sense of urgency. The constant hum of thoughts, intense arising of emotion, and fluxuating sensation unveil the personality’s immanent machinery. The sense of self becomes more nebulous and transparent.
One of the forms that contemplative practice can take is the intuitive apprehension of the process of our self-construction. The personality, far from being set in stone, continuously oscillates throughout our lifetime. A disruptive result of this practice is that emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are not the province of an experiencing “self,” but forms of social and personal programming. As our grasp of the mutability of this image grows, our entire personal cosmology changes. We begin to notice the ways that our cultural upbringing has imposed its own ideals upon us. Other intellectual systems and dysfunctional family histories swirl to the surface, incorporated into the self’s edifice. Our unquestioning identities begin to dissolve.
The paradoxes of self allow us to see what feelings and memories have been occluded from us. If we manage to integrate what we had been unable to, the central fiction of a static self crumbles. Recognition of the patterns that the body identifies with are a necessary step in beginning to transition to more conscious and introspective approaches in our actions. We develop a deeper understanding of our diverse ecologies. The ego undergoes a mutation and the entire body shifts in its understanding.
Coming to an understanding of this self-image has a dramatic effect on the way we not only can change our own paradigms, but on how we communicate with others. This creates new forms of culture and unique forms of life in the process. The discernment of personal power and responsibility has pervasive roots in the mystical and religious experiences of human history.
In his outstanding book Mysticism: Experience, Response, and Empowerment, Jess Hollenback discusses how mystics consciously transform methods of enculturation within themselves and others. Mystics reflect on tradition and shift culture in new directions.
When their imaginations are empowered, mystics explicitly and deliberately manipulate, at the level of individual experience, the same processes and mechanisms that religious traditions and cultures tacitly and unconsciously bring into play at the collective level when they create those basic orientations by which their adherents live. To put it another way, mystics and ex-statics display a remarkable degree of “playfulness” with the psychological processes that operate in enculturation . . . they can sometimes consciously manipulate those mechanisms that the enculturation process subliminally imprints upon us.
Sometimes one better understands the ordinary processes of nature when, to quote Francis Bacon, one “twists the lion’s tail” and causes the things of nature to behave in freakish and exaggerated ways so that processes that normally operate subliminally can come to the surface. The extreme phenomena of mystical experience function in a similar way for they, too, bring to the surface some of the processes at work in enculturation that otherwise lie hidden from view. The ordinary nonviolent processes of cultural change and adaptation generally involve an unobtrusive dissolution and creation of symbolic structures and assumptions about the nature of the world that shape human experiences of reality into ordered and meaningful patterns. Mystical experiences often present people with situations that either challenge or else confirm in an unexpected way those tacitly accepted symbolic structures that give order and meaning to human existence.
Here we have a good example of how mediums and mystics creatively “play” with the fundamental assumptions of their respective cultures and religious traditions . . . What do we learn from these observations? We learn that mystics are not a species set above the rest of humanity. They simply appear to exaggerate, temporally compress, and consciously control processes that are always taking place slowly and quietly, in a more attenuated form and more or less unconsciously, whenever human beings are engaged in those activities that create and sustain a cultural or religious tradition. This keenness with which mystics and ex-statics lay bare the effects of culture on human experience constitutes one of the most important aspects of their cultural and religious significance.
Contemplation can reveal that thoughts and sensations that we formerly took for granted as constituting “who we are,” really bring us firmly within the ambit of our own cultures and upbringings. Throughout their lives, humans assimilate patterns of collective programming. Looking deeply into these habits of thought and feeling, we begin to grasp their deeply pervasive effects on our own lives. We see how ingrained these patterns are, and how our unthinking acceptance of them propagates the illusion of a fixed self.
As we become aware of these different patterns, we may notice that our personalities center around certain dominant aspects. In the approach therapist Ron Kurtz calls the Hakomi Method, these attractors are called “central organizers” in that they actively structure and limit how we can respond at any given time:
So what are the central organizers, the important ones at the focal points of all this fervent creativity? What are we trying to get at when we do psychotherapy? We are trying to get at beliefs, images, memories, attitudes, and the important decisions we made about who we are and what type of world we’re part of. We’re trying to locate and look at pieces of the long ago. These events established our patterns and and still control what it is possible for us to experience, feel, think and express, to this day. The central organizers are central because they organize at the deepest and most pervasive levels, affecting nearly all our experience, all the time . . . These core organizers are are definitions and blueprints of the most basic issues about our being in the world. They are our reference points, our measures of the self and others, with which we set our expectations, goals, and limits.
We find ourselves entangled in the cycles of arising and sensation. Increasing and widening the scope of our perspective can lead us to spontaneously awaken. This is a highly inclusive metaphor that begins a sea change in the actualization of our lives. Rather than being shackled to certain methodologies, we begin to consciously change our behavior. In doing so we reshape the structure of our experience. The constrictive knots of personality that we have tied around ourselves begin to loosen, and we leverage these spaces wider with flowing action.
Knowledge of our own constructed realities begins the process of personal analysis and integration. In order to accomplish this, we begin with our own bodies in the present. Adopting an attitude of total inclusion, aspects of our awareness rise once more into perception. Compassionate intent brings out the various layers and complexities of our personal geographies. This brings a more complete understanding of the full range of our emotional expression. We become able to stay with any feeling as it flowers, no matter how painful or pleasurable. Recognizing and moving into the sensation allows it to open itself to us. We also note all the qualities associated with that feeling. This includes physical effects, internal dialogue, and any other dimensions contained in a particular experience. The way to move into a balanced orbit with these feelings is by processing them once more.
As we enact new methods of rigorous self-observation, we become aware of our inevitable and unpredictable tides of emotion. Although we cannot control the context that these emotions arise in, we can begin to remove ourselves from their unconscious expression. Typically, a feeling arises, and we respond to it in habitual and mechanical ways. Time and attention begin to dissolve the loops that this behavior accretes in. We reflect on the reinforcing and cyclic nature of feeling, thought, and action. This removes us from blindly enacting them. Doing this creates a new mode of experiencing in which we feel to the fullest while still being able to act in different extensions.
Spacious and content, without confusion from inner thoughts of grasping, effectively overcome habitual behavior and realize the self that is not possessed by emotions.
Comprehending this leads us towards further knowledge of the identification with our own pain, suffering, and victimhood. Often we do not engage in deep contemplative or therapeutic practice due to not only our systemic dread of feeling our own pain, but also feeling that this pain makes us who we are. Rather than moving into, experiencing, and moving past these personal sicknesses, we become trapped in them. Burrowing further in, we make them the center of our universe, nurturing them until they take on a life of their own. Therefore, we do not have to dwell in any set place; and can always press forward.
It becomes apparent that the more we identify with particular sensations, the more they repeat themselves, attempting to insinuate themselves into the fabric of who we are. Many of our problems are self-created in this regard. We lock ourselves into pain, unable to give it up, and use it to create our identities anew. For even the limits of pain may seem attractive compared to having to give up the whitewashed limits of self, and to take the plunge into our own fear, horror, and madness. But once we remember these aspects of ourselves, our dread of them begins to fall away, replaced with a pure flux, and an accepting attitude of unfamiliar becomings. We realize that we do not have to be constrained by any aspect of our experience, including concepts of who we thought we were. We can embark on a new course.
This reversal can be expressed by what scholar Jeffrey J. Kripal has termed “authorization”:
In the second stage, this insight into the realization that we are being written matures into the even more stunning idea that we can do something about this, that we can write ourselves anew. The final secret of the super-story, then, is that if we are indeed ‘above’ (super-it), then in some way that we do not yet understand, we are authorizing it. We do not need to be puppets at the mercy of some neurological programmer, or for that matter some faithful believer in the dictates of some authoritarian sky-God. We can become our own authors, we can recognize that we are pulling our own strings, that the angels and aliens, gods and demons are us.
The more we feel this, the more a definitive self gives way, turning its dictates to quicksand. We fall beneath the play of thought and arrive at the center of an ever-evolving mystery. Questioning who we are beneath our personal constructs, we find something that is not bound by the previous ways we have used to categorize ourselves. Here is a conceptual no-man’s-land where words fall from us and decay, turning to smoke from our lips.
Who are we, if not these ideas of self? Understanding this is the work of an entire life.