I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.
Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.
This is the last of three parts. The first post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The previous post focused on the importance of meditation and its challenges. This third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.
Why we should change our priorities.
Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.
As the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh at the end of the previous post implies, it all comes down to a question of priorities. She makes this point strongly (750):
If you put half of the energy you put into work and making money into meditating, you may become enlightened in a year!! Your choice, your will, your life.
If Ehrenfeld is to be believed in his book Flourishing the world will be a far better place simply as a result of this, as well.
Karen is particularly telling in her use of analogies again here (1045)
In general we do not identify with our cars and believe that`s all we are. We do know it`s just a vehicle, and it`s not because the car dies that we will die with it. We know that we will move on. It is exactly the same with our body. By the way, notice that we always say ‘our’ body, like we say ‘our car’ or ‘our house’, something that we possess not something that we are.
This makes for an interesting take on death, which is borne out by the accounts of those who have survived close encounters with the scythe-bearing skeleton (1131): ‘Death is just the end of the vehicle, not the passenger.’
Then we draw close again to the No-Self issue and the movie character analogy (1255-65):
. . . . really who are you? By now you know that you are not your body, you are not your mind, and death doesn`t exist. The ‘you’ you believe in is the one which is not real. It is the one which will die when the body dies. . . . The biggest illusion is to believe that we are the car. That`s a reason why we are so scared of dying, because we know for sure that the car will die. There is no doubt about that. They all die. But we are not the car. We are not the character. And we do not die. The thing is that by identifying too much with the character, we forget who we really are.
The word ‘character’ pins down a key point. In a way there is an unintended pun here. Character can refer either to a person in a novel, play or film script, or it can be used to describe that aspect of a person that has a moral dimension. (In this context I fell over a deliberate pun which I can’t resist sharing. We are dealing with a car-actor here!)
This for me homes in on part of what freeing ourselves from character in the first sense enables us to achieve in terms of creating character in the second sense. The contrast is perhaps most easily captured by the idea of personality (from the Latin persona, meaning a theatrical mask and later the character in a play) versus character (from the Greek, originally also meaning a protagonist in a play, but moving through Aristotle’s emphasis on an ethical dimension to signify something closer to integrity). Meditation enables us to disidentify with the mask we wear, our personality, and to discover who we really are, to become our true selves, if you like.
She goes onto discuss the importance of love and of giving, and how much better it is for us than pursuing our own material advantage (1388-1397):
Our true self is not capable of hurting anyone, of killing, of damaging or stealing other people’s goods. We need to put a costume on in order to achieve that. . . . . your real self is all about giving. Giving is feeding your soul. Seeing the happiness on someone else`s face because of what you gave them, will fill your heart with much more joy than a free meal ticket.
As we have discussed on this blog, for instance in the context of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – 1456) ‘The very common ‘I don`t feel like it’ may only be another trick from your ego to prevent you from realizing who you are.’
ACT takes the view that if we wait until we feel like doing something, we may well never do it. Doing it will make us feel better so we need to get on with it no matter how we feel to start with. In this context, we must accept though, at the same time, that the main rewards of meditation may not come quickly (1478):
You cannot change everything in one day. It will happen progressively. The changes won`t happen faster than you can handle them. If you work on yourself, you will experience the changes as perfect gradual steps, like a beautiful flower gently blossoming.
And we should not have grandiose ideas about how what we can then do will change the world. People who have trodden the path tell a different story (1494):
They don`t talk about changing the world, they perform little or big acts of kindness every day. It may be the family guy who volunteers once a week at his local charity, the kid who shares his lunch with his friend, the lady who feeds the birds in the garden, and the activists who spend months of their life trying to stop whaling.
This is very much in line with the Bahá’í model of community building, the first stage of civilisation building, which starts small but gradually influences greater numbers of people until a tipping point is reached: this will inevitably be ‘the work of centuries.’ Whether we reach the tipping point before we destroy ourselves will depend upon our choices.
She is on similar ground to ACT again when she discusses the nature of suffering (1535):
There are two types of pain: physical pain, which is as much real as our body is, and emotional pain which is as much an illusion as our mind is.
ACT clarifies that pain is what life brings: suffering is what we add to it by what our minds make of it. Karen begins to tread the same ground.
She begins by looking at emotion (1550-53):
Without emotion we just see life as it exactly is, with a clear perception and without any projections. Without emotion we just become watchers of this movie we are playing. We do not try to change it or wish for it to be different because we REALLY DON`T MIND how it is and how it will end up. Without emotion there is no suffering. . . . . . Emotional suffering is in the mind and the mind only. The pain we experience exists because there is a dichotomy between what is and what we want.
Part of the problem is the sense of separateness (1583): ‘Because we believe ourselves separated we`ve become blind to the perfection and the interconnectedness of all things.’ As some spiritual traditions explain it, because we are underneath the woven carpet of creation, as it were, we see only the knots and tangles and not the pattern.
We have to have faith in the existence of a pattern even if we cannot see it (1595-98):
True faith is not blind faith. True faith comes from knowledge. It comes from learning about life, about God and about yourself. . . . . Connection is very important to our well being. We need to find connection with life, with people, and with nature. Connection brings us closer to oneness.
This resonates with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who also makes the same kind of link with deeds as Karen does at various points: ‘By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.
Here is where things get momentarily slightly confused for me. She begins by saying that (1648): ‘Emotions and feelings help us determine what is good for us, and what is not.’ However, even though the phrasing here suggests they are equivalent what she then says suggests there is a definite distinction in her mind (1652): ‘One is real, the other is an illusion. Feelings are the language of our soul, whereas emotion is the reaction of the mind. Our emotions are our reactions to the world.’
The value of the distinction is then unpacked in more detail (1654 through 1674):
. . . . feelings are our guidance, and instead of being our ‘reactions’ they are our creations. . . . . Feelings are our intuition. . . . . Anger, fear, sadness, pain, frustration, etc, are what we call bad emotions. And joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, excitement, etc, are what we call good emotions. But in both cases they are just illusions.
I think she is basically correct here. However, my personal view is that greater clarity comes from using feeling and emotion as equivalent, so that ‘gut feeling’ can be seen as a product of the reptilian brain and therefore not to be relied upon. Intuition, as distinct from instinct, needs to be reserved for those intimations and promptings from our spirit that can be relied upon. I have dealt with this at great length elsewhere in my discussion of Kahneman’s ideas. Karen’s terminology, though less than optimal in my view, does not distract from the power and relevance of the points she is making.
I do have serious reservations though about the way she phrases her suggestions as to how to deal with emotion (1678): ‘if you are angry, be angry totally.’
I’m not sure this is a helpful way to express what I think she might mean. I feel containment in full awareness is a better way of putting it. This allows you to steer between acting out and repression and also enables you to find the most constructive way of expressing the anger should you chose to do so. At the very least you will be able to integrate it.
In the end though, in spite of all my grumblings here and there, I feel that this is an immensely valuable book. It has helped me in my quest for a deeper experience of my own true nature, though this is still proving quite a challenge. I think the benefits of reading Karen’s powerful insights and following her personal journey far outweigh any disagreements I might have with aspects of her philosophy.
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