This is Post 9 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
Having reflected on the insubstantiality of the egoic parts, I need, in this meditation blog series, to balance that understanding by at least touching on some other helpful concepts in regard to the tricky and paradoxical question of what it is to have, or be, or become, a ‘self’ – one that is perhaps more affirmative. The nature of the human self and the processes by which it develops, or fails to develop, have challenged Psychology since its inception, and challenged our philosophers and spiritual thinkers for very much longer. Donald Winnicott, an innovative British psychoanalyst and writer, who had a passionate interest in the subtle role that parents, and especially mothers, play in the evolution of a child’s sense of self, put it this way:
“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman.”
Donald Winnicott, Psychoanalyst and Writer
The largely unrecognised value, of the complex and powerful way in which a mother provides a mirror for her child’s emerging self, and provides a ‘facilitating environment’ through the mother-child bond, was the subject of Winnicott’s life’s work. He was not alone among the psychoanalytic thinkers in this. Jung, as always in my view, went further, recognising that the mother is ultimately an archetypal figure, and that the personal mother constellates the archetypal power of the Mother archetype in her relationship with the child. Characteristically, Jung also recognised that the mother archetype has two sides – that it includes a dark side that may stand in the way of spiritual maturity.
Establishing the Inner Mirror of Consciousness
The mirroring power of the parent’s love – the power to reflect back to the child, who and what the child is in their essence – may be conceptualised as the ability to facilitate through the empathetic outer relationship of parent and child, the emergence of an ‘inner relationship’ with Consciousness, which is the basis of a positive sense of identity in the child. Given their own cultural and psychological conditioning and impaired self-connection, it is natural and inevitable that parental behaviour is not ideal, or not, to use Winnicott’s phrase – good enough – and that it therefore sometimes fails to facilitate ‘self-connection’ in the child.
In terms of Consciousness, what Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’ instinctively does, is to welcome and validate the child’s emerging experience of Consciousness – and with that, their consciousness of being a ‘person’. To ease this emergence, the mother validates four qualities that arise in connection with Consciousness: the sense of being; the sense of embodiment; the sense of uncaused happiness or contentment; and the sense of ‘life-energy’. It can be helpful to to recognise the same needs for validation continue in us as adults. Our spiritual development and psychotherapeutic processes share the same aims, and meet the same needs in our adult selves – especially the need for ‘mirroring’ and an attitude of empathy towards the emerging ‘self’.
These four qualities of embodied Consciousness correspond to the four quadrants of the Buddhist Mandala that I spoke of in my last post (here), and while there are traditional Buddhist deities who embody them, they are usually not named in the tradition. I have therefore, in the context of these reflections on meditation and self-enquiry, found it helpful to give these four subtle qualities a name – the four Qualia. Qualia is a term borrowed from Philosophy and Neuroscience.
I shall be talking more about mirroring and empathy, and also about the Qualia – the subjective, qualitative, difficult-to-define experiences that arise in connection with Consciousness – in later articles. These same Qualia are key inner landmarks in our practice of meditation. They are also present at any time when we, as adult spiritual practitioners, choose to nurture ourselves by resting as Consciousness.
The Self experience as Inner Relationship with Consciousness
While it is unfortunate that the psychoanalytic innovators did not inquire directly into the nature of Consciousness, there is clearly value in some of their attempts to describe how our sense of self arises from an inner relationship between a provisional cluster of egoic selves and a mysterious, difficult-to-define, transpersonal Self. This inner relationship to the archetype of the Self, as Jung would conceptualise it, provides for some, a useful ‘way in’, as we approach the inner experience of Consciousness in meditation.
Jung’s rich and complex notion of an Ego-Self Axis, especially as it has been developed by Nathan Schwatz-Salant (who has integrated this with ideas of psychoanalytic innovators: Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg and Melanie Klein), can provide a useful perspective on how the process of looking inward (and outward) toward Consciousness, in meditation practice, creates mental and emotional stability and enhances creativity. Both Consciousness and the ‘self’ are however, even more mysterious than our most sophisticated psychologies acknowledge. The discovery of Quantum Mechanics in the course of the 20th Century, has presented humanity with a wonderful opportunity in the 21st Century, to create a new way of thinking about Consciousness and identity and the relationship between the two.
Looking across the Quantum Mechanical Threshold
We are now able to understand Consciousness as a phenomenon of the threshold between the Quantum Mechanical and the Classical worlds – sometimes experienced as a relationship, and sometimes experienced as a unity – hence my preference for talking of Consciousness and that which arises in Consciousness, as a relational unity. When we try to see and relate to Consciousness, it is as if we are trying to peer across the Quantum Mechanical threshold from the duality of our created world into the unitary and uncreated world that interpenetrates and supports it.
Whereas our religious impulse might lead us to expect to find a separate God somewhere that we could ‘relate to’, we instead find a unity – a oneness that we are part of. Ultimately we discover that we are not separate from the Divine – but the everyday sense of egoic separation remains as the background and context for that experience of atonement. When we rest as Consciousness, we also have the opportunity to look back across the Quantum Mechanical threshold (as if from the other side), experiencing the created world from the point of view of the uncreated Quantum Mechanical world; from the point of view of Consciousness; from the point of view of God. The sense of ‘I’ it would seem to be a function of that mysterious threshold – that mysterious interface.
Yab-Yum – the Inner Father-Mother
It is worth returning to Jung’s observation that the parents ‘carry’ the archetypal roles of mother and father during the child’s developmental years. As adults practising meditation, or mindfulness, or resting as Consciousness, we experience an integration of these archetypal masculine and archetypal feminine qualities into our conscious self. We have an opportunity, by recognising Consciousness, to make up for the understandable and completely forgivable limitations of our parents and our developmental process, and to progressively heal any impairments to our Self-connection that may have occurred.
The male-female Buddha couples, which we see depicted in sexual union in Tibetan Buddhist iconography are referred to as Yab-Yum – Tibetan for father-mother. The symbolism of these Yab-Yum images is deep and complex, but on one level they remind us that it is in resting as Consciousness that the mother and father aspects of Consciousness are integrated, and the inner father and mother are finally healed. In this way we not only become our own mother and father at last, leaving behind childhood and entering spiritual adulthood, but we also heal those archetypes in the collective unconscious – the profound image of the Divine Union is renewed in the collective unconscious – in the Soul of the World.
These are very powerful multi-dimensional symbolic images. On one level they point us to the felt experience of non-duality – the relational unity of Consciousness and that which arises in Consciousness. On another level they invite us to recognise that the way that Consciousness, which stands behind us supportively, or appears to lead us forward in life, can be characterised as both feminine and masculine at different times. This is clearly a very important and universal spiritual experience, with resonances in many spiritual cultures. I shall be going into the specifics of how this masculine-feminine polarity is experienced in meditation, and in the psycho-spiritual anatomy of the chakras and the subtle bodies, in future articles.
Paradoxical self-transcendence through Self-Connection
I have wanted to include the Jungian and later psychoanalytic idea of the importance of internal self-connection because it is an important counterpoint to the confusing and somewhat unattractive notion of ‘no-self’ that is sometimes crudely presented in spiritual discourse. However it is conceptualised, the actual experience of our internal connection with the radically impersonal field of Consciousness, which is the paradoxical source of our sense of self, it is always experienced as a validation and an affirmation of the self; a self-fullness (to use Marshall Rosenberg’s term) rather than a selflessness; and an expansion of the self to include the other, rather than a diminution.
While spiritual development does require that we make an energetic choice between Consciousness and unconsciousness, it has nothing to do, in my view, with the notions of heroic self-sacrifice or ascetic self-denial, which so often confuse spiritual discussion.