Friday, July 31, 2009

Is Spiritual Practice Emotional Catharsis?

In my meditation practice I've had some dramatic experiences, and also some not so dramatic, as habituated patterns are revealed. In the end, if freedom is the goal, it doesn't seem to matter how dramatic the meditation experiences are. Neither freedom, not the effort to free oneself, have a particular emotional tone. I'd like to explore this because getting snookered and snared by emotions is a common challenge for many (all?) of us.

The capacity to experience discomfort is essential, but discomfort is not a sign of success in spiritual practice. Emotional catharsis might occur, but not necessarily. Catharsis certainly isn’t the method. Discomfort can just as well be a sign of ineffective effort, of fighting one’s own experience, of perpetuating long-standing habits of struggle and suffering.

The nature of habituated patterns (as “just” patterns of experience and behavior) is sometimes revealed without severe emotional distress. It’s the clear seeing that heals, that returns us to wholeness, by revealing a pattern to be a tiny part of a never-ending stream of experiences and possibilities. As we get used to seeing that, and living from that seeing, it begins not to matter so much whether the pattern is arising. Something is changed, but what that is, and how it unfolds, is hard to predict.

Sometimes my path has been through grueling emotional swamps, alternating between poor me the victim, stupid me why can't I get this right, pride for all my brave persistence and hard work, fantasies of how great life would be when I was enlightened, and confusion about whether it was all worth it. Other times it's been very different. One day in retreat, I stood up and something fell off. I felt it fall and I was 30 pounds lighter. I looked around, and didn't see anything on the floor. I looked and looked into my emotions and memories, and couldn't identify what it was that had fallen away. It was weird, but the only emotions were "wow!" and "great!" Years later I still feel lighter, and I still don't know what I lost. Good riddance.

I don't know how typical my experience has been, and don't see myself as a great model to follow. But I have learned there’s no set sequence of events, and there are no particular emotions that have to arise. Patterns may lose their hold in a flash, with or without great pain or effort. Or patterns may fade gradually, over time, and one day we look around and wonder what happened. Or patterns as internal experiences may continue to arise, within an accommodating awareness that embraces the quirks of humanity. Or patterns may just plague us throughout life, and we learn to live with them, and no longer torture ourselves or others with our expectations about how things ought to be.

Habituated patterns are as much perceptual and behavioral as they are emotional. A focus on the emotional, and the dramatic, may itself be another habit. A heart may not need to be ripped open to heal a wound; healing may begin when we stop ripping. Passivity in regards to patterns takes many forms. Freedom can arise in any number of ways.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man,
but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time.
-- Pudd’nhead Wilson

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