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Breaking down is breaking through

Since my Zen retreat the other week, I've been thinking about the relationship between catharsis and Awakening. I've experienced a fair bit of it (catharsis, not Awakening) during my meditative career, and never so much as on that retreat: I was assailed by an endless stream of memories, many of which I hadn't thought about for years, and on several occasions I was moved to tears. These experiences cannot help but feel significant, and their significance is affirmed by a lot of contemporary Buddhist teachers: they are seen as "purifications"; a release of psychic or karmic baggage which would otherwise get in the way of Awakening. So, purifications = progress towards Awakening. Which is all well and good, but I don't believe in karma. So, I'm going to try to set out an account of this process that a secular, scientifically-minded person such as myself can accept.

But first, let's define our terms.

"Catharsis" is a familiar term to many, but I didn't know until I looked it up that it translates as... "purification". It's an idea that goes back to the ancient Greeks, but most of us know it from Freud's usage: he claimed that in psychoanalysis, patients could uncover repressed psychic material and release it, often with much weeping, which would resolve the neurosis that had brought them to therapy. It's this kind of thing that I'm talking about, and that many meditators will be familiar with: upwellings of emotion, often associated with memories, and often having a pronounced physical dimension - the emotion might be felt physically or accompanied by strong sensations in the body.

And by "Awakening", I'm talking here about the "non-dual" version, which is the one that shows up in Zen. This is the realisation that there is no essence to us, no homunculus pulling the strings, and that in fact there is no "us", because the separation between "us" and everything else is illusory: we are the world, and the world is us.

But now, down to business. What on earth does crying over the time you nearly drowned when you were 6 (to take an example from my retreat) have to do with realising that you and the cosmos are not, in fact, two separate things?

Here, let's turn to Shinzan, the Zen master who taught Daizan, the Zen master who led the retreat. Shinzan (whose English was less than perfect, but much better than my Japanese) has this to say:

"baby is very beautiful...human baby is just completely perfect. When hungry, it cries. When sleepy, it sleeps. But it is a very, very short time...As we grow, grow, grow, the me, me, me is stronger and stronger. This is me [pointing to himself]. That is world [pointing away from himself]. Adult time is split. Little me, great big world."

What he is saying is that a baby is in a sense Awake - it has no sense of being a distinct self that is separate from the world and is the author of its actions. It experiences its cries and its sleeping as simply...happening. But as it grows older, the sense of self develops, and the sense of a world out there that is separate from itself.

The well-informed reader will notice that this is also what is claimed by certain psychoanalytic theories, which talk about a state of "Primary Narcissism" in which the baby does not recognise any boundary between itself and the outside world. And it's echoed by later, non-psyhoanalytic theories such as Relational-Frame Theory, the highly technical theory that underlies the behavioural therapy called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Relational Frame Theory (which, admittedly, is strongly influenced by the non-dual spiritual traditions) claims that we develop our sense of self through our interactions with others. They look us in the eye and say "you"; they point at us; and they ascribe agency and responsbility to our actions. And so, over time, we come to believe that there is indeed a "me" in our heads, where they are pointing, and that that "me" is an autonomous agent that generates our thoughts and controls our bodies.

So, if we run with the idea that babies have no sense of self, that it develops over time, and that Awakening might consist in seeing its illusory nature, where does catharsis come in?

Well, the sense of self is not just a sense of "me" inside the head, looking out through the eyes. It's also a biography - a set of ideas about "me", linked to a whole load of memories. I, for instance, have the idea that I am a psychologist, and that idea is linked to certain memories: I remember applying to train as psychologist, I remember the interview for the training course, I remember getting my acceptance letter, and so on. And of course I have more troubling ideas about myself, and troubling memories: I remember painful moments and shameful actions, and they too are woven into my personal narrative, and my sense of who I am. Both Zen and Relational Frame Theory see this as a source of great suffering, and would like to liberate us from its grip: That's not who you truly are, they want to tell us. You're so much more than that.

But if we want to unwind that biographical process of "selfing" - the one that takes an embarrassing incident at age 13 and turns it into beliefs about "me" - we are going to have to contend with emotion. Because it is preciely the most emotional moments of our lives that most strongly structure the sense of self. Emotion, as we are told by contemporary psychology and neuroscience, is a signal of salience. It's a great big neon sign saying, Pay attention to this event. It's important. Remember it and let it inform your future thinking and actions. And so we are inclined to remember highly emotional events, and to weave them into our sense of self. I remember vividly my anxiety about the interview for the psychology training course, and I remember my joy at getting the acceptance letter. It's become a part of my sense of myself. As have painful incidents in my early teens.

So, should we be surprised that unpicking the sense of self entails reckoning with memories, and with strong emotion attached to them? We should not. It makes sense that in order to "let go" of those embarrassing teenage moments, which is to say, to stop caring about them and stop identifying with them as things I did, that say something about who I am, I might need to experience powerful emotion. We all know that sometimes having a good cry can be just what we need to resolve our distress and get on with our day, and maybe sometimes it's what we need to get on with the process of Awakening - to let go of all the moments that have accreted into the story of "Who I am".

And in my next post, I'll set out some reasons why we might doubt the account I've just set out.


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