This is Post 8 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
It is often claimed that meditation brings about psychological integration – that it helps us to become less scattered and more unified. This is certainly true, but I am hoping that it will be helpful for us if, in this article, I clarify the nature of the disintegration that is inherent in ordinary egoic consciousness, so that we can better understand why, ultimately, Consciousness itself is the only force that can bring about psychological integration. Clearly, the egoic will has a part to play, but the integration process that we speak of in spiritual and discourse is a ‘Middle Way’ in which the universal and the personal meet and are reconciled.
In the course of the development of psychology and psychotherapy practice during the 20th Century, an understanding was introduced that, while it was startlingly original at the time, also seems to be an absolutely obvious reality in everyday life. This was the idea of the Unconscious. The notion of the Unconscious has been conceptualised in detail in a variety of different ways, but the core idea is that the mind is structured in such a way that we all tend to have a variety of unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, sensations, intentions and memories, that are entirely incongruous with, and even opposite to, the contents of our conscious mind.
Egoic parts – Soul parts – Psychological parts
This tendency for the self to continuously divide against itself leads inevitably to, not a single self but a profusion of opposing pairs of psychological parts. I am not talking about Schizophrenia here, or Multiple Personality Disorder – rather I am referring to a commonplace psychological reality that we are all familiar with in ourselves and others. We are all familiar with internal psychological conflict, and our language reflects this. When we are trying to make a decision, we say “Part of me feels this, and part of me feels that”. When we use the personal will to deny a thought, or a feeling, or a desire, we usually have a “reaction”, and suddenly find ourselves identifying with a part of ourselves that we had previously suppressed.
Unless we are consistently resting as Consciousness, everything about our perceptual process will inevitably tend to create psychological dis-integration, where each of the psychological parts that we identify with will be in some degree of illusion. In acknowledgement of this inherent unconsciousness and lack of wholeness, these psychological parts are often referred to as ‘egoic parts’. This terminology needs to be qualified however, since these parts can often be entirely unconscious to the ‘I’ or ‘ego’. All the egoic parts go in and out of consciousness. Our identification moves between them in response to circumstances. Even the most stable parts of our identity have unconscious, and opposed or at least complementary egoic parts associated with them.
These psychological parts might better be called soul parts, if we take notion of soul in the way it if understood in Archetypal Psychology, since each part is itself an expression of both an archetypal/transpersonal dimension and a personal one. Each soul part is deeply rooted in Consciousness, and inseparable from it. What gives the soul parts their ‘egoic’ and unconscious character is the failure of the series of transitory egoic identifications that we experience as ‘I’, to recognise their own source – Consciousness.
So the term ‘egoic’ in relation to the psychological parts, at least in the way that I use it, is used to highlight their characteristic failure to recognise Consciousness. In reality, Consciousness pervades and informs the function of the egoic parts even as the egoic attitudes are in some respects a mirror opposite of the attitudes of Consciousness. While it is good to be aware of its limitations, and while I avoid the use of the word ‘ego’, the term ‘egoic’ is extremely useful in the context of a spiritual discussion, especially in relation to our multiplicity of psychological parts, because we need a term that highlights the divided, separate, and polarised nature of these parts; the transitory nature of our identification with them; and their lack of alignment with Consciousness.
The Origins of the Five Buddha Mandala
There is a great deal that needs to be said about the phenomenon of egoic parts, and I will be returning to an exploration of this theme frequently in future posts. The mandala archetype will be providing the guiding structure for our exploration, and hopefully providing a graphic representation of the both the processes of integration that we are capable of as we familiarise ourselves with Consciousness, and the processes of internal disintegration and fusion that we are subject to when we are identified with egoic parts. I will be drawing on the mandala-wisdom of Jung’s archetypal psychology, which itself draws from many traditions, but will be making particular reference to the highly developed mandala-wisdom that we in find Tibetan Buddhism.
There are three main Buddhist teaching frameworks that came together to create the spiritual framework that we know from the Tibetan Buddhist mandalas. These are the five ‘wisdoms’; the four brahmavihāras and the five skandhas. Of these, the five skandhas (Sanskrit) are especially worth noting in the context of our discussion of egoic parts, because they constitute an analysis of this very phenomena of psychological disintegration and egoic fusion that we have been talking about.
This pre-Buddhist analysis called the five skandhas was used frequently by the Buddha, and he appears to have advocated its use as a framework for self-inquiry. Although generally poorly understood, this teaching has been of enormous importance for the Buddhist tradition as it evolved over twenty-five centuries. It is associated with the notion of Shūnyatā (Sanskrit), or ’emptiness’. Shūnyatā is more than literal ’emptiness’ however. It refers in part to the fact that our egoic identifications are found to be ultimately ’empty’ of self nature when examined closely, but it is also describes the wonderful internal spaciousness, which we experience when we dis-identify from our psychological parts and rest as Consciousness.
I personally find the four brahmavihāras, to be an extremely profound and practical formulation. Like the skandas, they were a pre-existing ancient Indian teaching that the Buddha adopted and made great use of. They are also especially significant because they are a precursor in Early Buddhism, for what we see later in the Mandala of the Five Buddhas such as we find in the Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead), where the skandhas and wisdoms are presented as pairs of opposites – providing fundamental and foundational understandings for the meditator and the practitioner of self-inquiry.
The Five Skandhas – components of the perceptual illusion of an egoic self
In his presentation of the five skandhas teaching, the Buddha can be seen as inviting his students to recognise that the belief in a single unified self, and our psychological defences of that illusion, were enormously detrimental to spiritual progress. The word skandha literal means ‘heap’ or ‘aggregate’. The Buddha was saying that the perception of a separate self is metaphorically akin to the construction of an ancient Indian house from a variety of building materials that were heaped up in preparation for the task. Because we fail to understand the energetic and ’empty’ nature of the construction materials, we assume that the house is fixed, separate – in the view of scientific materialism, merely physical.
So, the Buddha used the notion of skandhas as a metaphor to talk about the constituent components in the perceptual process by which the appearance of a self is constructed. He also appears to have been able to repeatedly demonstrate, in the course of his Socratic self-inquiry dialogues with his students, that none of these separate components have any self-nature. In the Pali Cannon, when the Buddha’s students gain Enlightenment, as they did remarkably frequently through his skilled guidance, this realisation is very often described as insight into “the Emptiness of all five skandhas”.
These insights are borne out by our own phenomenological investigation, and in recent years have even been born out by the brain scan experiments of neuroscience, which also find the unitary ego to be a perceptual illusion, since they find that the normal personality is also multiple on the level of brain functioning.
Mandala Innerwork – self-empathy as self-inquiry
There is much more that can be said on this phenomena of the egoic parts. This an area of knowledge that has enormous importance for psychotherapy practice, and for the practice of what I call Mandala Innerwork – where our self-inquiry fully acknowledges the appearance of each of the skandhas as they arise in Consciousness. Mandala Innerwork is best practiced with a spiritual companion. The relational presence of a friend when we are doing this form of self-inquiry, helps us to stay in relationship with the parts, and breaks our identification with the psychological parts, and helps us relate to the parts as objective psychological fragments, even as they are parts of ourselves.
I shall be writing in detail about my Mandala Innerwork model in the future. My focus in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series is on meditative-inquiry, which aims at familiarity with, and alignment with, Consciousness itself, and in general avoids focusing on what is arising in Consciousness. If you are committed to supporting others to rest as Consciousness, there will be times when this ‘inner relationship’ approach will be needed to provide a framework for that facilitation. When I have taught Mandala Innerwork in the past I have presented it as a self-empathy exercise – self-empathy as self-inquiry. In the spiritual context, provision of empathy leads the facilitation of self-empathy in the other – and self-empathy finds its deepest expression in self-inquiry.
The investigation of the nature of the egoic parts is also of huge importance for anyone interested in conscious communication, in building harmonious relationships, or in ethics. I am hoping to address this area soon, in a separate thread of discussion.
Only Consciousness can bring about psychological integration
There are related questions that I would like to start to address in my next post however. These questions relate to the role of Consciousness in relationship to the experiencing self. It can be said that Consciousness is the only thing that is unified and single in the whole universe. For this reason it is only by resting as Consciousness that we can bring about psychological integration and a state of wholeness on a psychological level. It is very clear therefore, that Consciousness must be our guide and our focus in meditation.
But how is it, and why is it, that Consciousness helps us to grow into our true individuality – into an authentic and embodied self that is capable of functioning ethically and harmoniously? These are some of the questions that I shall be engaging with as we seek a sound theoretical foundation for meditation practice.