This is Post 28 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
Each of the four Quadrants of the mandala is a powerful ‘way in’ to the experience of embodied Consciousness. Each is distinctive, and each is as powerful and as important, as all the others. The Western Quadrant, which we have been examining in the last few posts, takes us into the mystery through the experience of the evaluative psychological function of Feeling. Essentially, we are being invited to rest as Consciousness and to evaluate our experience from that place – to evaluate our experience not from egoic Feeling, but from the Feeling aspect of Consciousness.
Consciousness does not evaluate like the egoic mind does – it does not simply distinguish between that which it ‘likes’ and that which it ‘does not like’. It might seem, at least at first, that Consciousness makes no evaluation at all. When we allow ourselves to rest as Consciousness however, and familiarise ourselves with Consciousness and with the experience of the Emotional Body through meditative enquiry, we notice that Consciousness is indeed evaluative – but it evaluates unconditionally. Consciousness unconditionally values everything in our experience – it feels everything, it accepts everything, it embraces everything, and it loves everything. This attitude, and this state of alignment of the Emotional Body, is what the Buddhist tradition calls mettā, or Loving Kindness.
The Inner Landscape of Egoic Feeling
In earlier posts, when we were exploring the psychological landscape of the Eastern Quadrant, and of the Thinking function and of the Mental Body, we found it useful to contrast the mental clarity of the brahmavihāra of upeksā, or Equanimity, with its opposite – with the attitudes of judgement, punishment, and mental attack, that the Buddha symbolised so graphically in the images of the Narakas or Hell Realms. (You can read that post here).
I would like to do the same now, as we explore the psychological landscape of the Feeling function and the Emotional Body – because the Buddha spoke of another type of hell realm that describes egoic Feeling very well indeed, once again reflecting on the most extreme expressions of the egoic function in order to illustrate his point. This alternative hell, this psychological and cultural tendency that we can find ourselves expressing if we fail to differentiate the Feeling function and rest the Emotional Body as Consciousness, is the Preta Realm, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.
The Opposite of Love and Contentment
The archetypal images of the Preta Realm, are images of extreme deprivation, addiction, compulsion, shame, depression, and emotional emptiness. The pretas show us the extreme egoic opposite of mettā – the moods and behaviours that we can all find ourselves in from time to time, when we are in unconscious identification with old emotional wounds, and have lost our connection to the source of love within. There is great value in reflecting on these images because half the world is in some degree of this style of egoic identification for much of the time. These preta states are an ever-present Shadow for anyone who has ever experienced any form of loss, or grief, or deprivation – which is all of us.
If we wish to become conscious, it is necessary for us to face into these stark polarities in the psyche – and to recognise in ourselves, the ever-present Shadow tendencies that the Buddha’s Six Realms show us so clearly. While mettā is our natural state, the conditions of life are such that we need to make the personal spiritual choice to rest as Consciousness in order to return to that state. And we need to make that choice repeatedly, until the energetic momentum of the Emotional Body has been established in Loving Kindness – in contentment, happiness, and warm acceptance.
A Desperate Refusal to Feel
It is of the nature of human beings that we are emotionally vulnerable – vulnerable to emotional trauma. When we are able to rest as Consciousness, we cope much better with life’s emotional trials, but the egoic tendency to suppress, or repress, or deny emotional pain in some way, is always present. And every time we do this to ourselves there is an energetic residue in the Emotional Body – a wound and a disability that is waiting to healed.
Unfortunately, however careful we are to cover it up, the presence of that energetic residue of loss, grief and emotional pain absolutely guarantees that circumstances will conspire to ensure that we will re-experience that emotional wounding – that we will be ‘triggered’ by life experiences that are similar in some way to those that caused the original wound. And if, when the inevitable triggering experiences occur, we are once again unable to rest as Consciousness and allow the experience, the self-numbing, self-devaluing impulse is very likely to repeat and deepen.
The egoic behaviour patterns that the Preta Realm symbolically describes, are the helpless and self-destructive end-point of this ignorance of Consciousness and this desperate refusal to feel. The tragic fact that needs to be remembered in connection with the pretas is that happiness, satisfaction, and the capacity to hold, value, and accept emotional pain is inherent in Consciousness, and always present and available. Paradoxically it is the same desire to bring comfort and good feelings – the same energetic impulse, inherent in Consciousness – that when appropriated by egoic consciousness, initiates the psychological collapse into the extreme compulsiveness that is symbolised by the pretas.
Ugliness and Desolation – The Imagery of the Preta Realm
The different cultural forms of Buddhism imagine the Preta Realm slightly differently – but it is generally imagined as a sort of nightmare parallel universe, that we can get reborn into for extremely long periods of time if we indulge the karmic tendencies that they represent. If, with the knowledge of the archetypal approach to psychology, we imagine the Preta Realm as an archetypal landscape rather than a literal plane of existence, we have the freedom to make the imagery ‘real’ for ourselves as modern students of spiritual psychology. While I wish to respect the Buddhist traditions, I have adopted this freer approach in parts of my description below.
The physical environment of the Preta Realm is one of desolation and ugliness. Traditionally it is imagined as a lifeless wasteland, but it could equally be imagined as a crumbling urban landscape of dilapidation, dirt and neglect. It might even be imagined as resembling a particularly ugly and characterless modern shopping mall in a dystopian future, where the pitiless commercial imperative has swept away all individuality and created a hard and soulless architecture which is devoid of the light of humanity, even as it is brightly lit by fluorescent lights and the illuminated logos of the retail corporations.
These internal dream-like landscapes are inhabited by the pretas – pitiful beings who, although they are very frail, having thin legs and arms, and tiny thin elongated necks, also have large bloated bellies. Their faces are contorted by despair and starvation, and they have large eyes and tiny mouths. Eternally in the grip of un-namable inner pain and a crushing emotional emptiness they are compulsively driven by an overwhelming craving for anything that appears to promise momentary relief. These are beings who have lost all discernment as to what is beneficial, nourishing, or satisfying – and what it not. Tradition tells us that in their desperate scavenging the pretas will even eat excrement.
The Preta Realm gives us eloquent images of the most extreme outcome of the downward spiral of egoic Feeling – if we are unlucky enough to fall that far. The distended bellies and large eyes symbolise appetite, while the thin weak limbs symbolise the disembodiment and vulnerability that comes when fear of painful feeling becomes a desperate unwillingness to feel. The tiny mouths and thin necks symbolise the inability to effectively take in nourishment. Tradition tells us that the un-nutritious food that the pretas do manage to eat turns into sharp blades in their stomach, or turns into fire and burns their mouths.
A Culture of Spiritual, Emotional, Social and Aesthetic Deprivation
While this imagery is very extreme, most people experience some resonance with the states and behaviours that are symbolised here. And we cannot say that the Preta Realm describes only the psychology of the addict, the alcoholic, and those who over-eat to comfort themselves. Rather preta psychology is an integral part of human psychology, and is an ever present tendency in human culture. The tendency to look for satisfaction in objects, foods, substances, products, relationships and experiences, and the failure to recognise the satisfaction that is inherent in Consciousness, is universal.
Unless we are consistently choosing to rest the Emotional Body as Consciousness it is unfortunately inevitable that egoic consciousness will distort the evaluative function of Feeling. Without the capacity to rest as Consciousness, and the capacity to allow feelings to be as they are, we tend to create pairs of psychological parts in which one part carries the repressed emotional pain and the other maintains the repression. When we have accumulated a lot of this sort of energetic patterning in the Emotional Body, we find ourselves plagued by a sense of inner emptiness, by shame, by meaninglessness, by a lack of self-worth, and by the sort of restless craving that is the fate of the pretas.
When we live in a culture that is informed by the fundamental spiritual deprivation of a broken connection with Consciousness and with the love (mettā) we carry within, it becomes difficult to function well on the level of Feeling. A contraction into egoic desperation inevitably follows; the necessary emotional healing cannot happen; and the focus of our attention is always towards externals and superficialities.
Without the holding presence of Consciousness there can be no fully differentiated Feeling function for guidance, and our sense of the inner life, our sense of soul, is inevitably lost. And with this loss comes a loss of meaning; a loss of our sense of direction as a culture; a loss of interest in community and society; a loss of discrimination as to what is truly of value; and a loss of what it means to be a human being. It is not surprising therefore, that the Buddha gave such importance to mettā.
Desire is Not the Problem
The Buddha is often characterised as having identified ‘desire’ as the problem. This is unfortunately a gross oversimplification. The paradoxical truth of the matter is that the experiences of pleasure, desire and satisfaction, are all dependent on Consciousness, and our ability to identify that which is of value through Feeling has been a key driving force both in our individual survival, and in the collective evolutionary process since the emergence of life on earth. Indeed desire is essential to the process of spiritual evolution that we are addressing here.
I shall be talking much more about desire in future posts, when I move on to reflect on the psychology of the Northern Quadrant, but briefly it needs to be said here that it is not desire itself but the unconscious egoic distortion of desire, that leads us towards preta states and behaviours. Much more fundamentally, the problem is our failure to rest as Consciousness, and our failure to take embodied Consciousness – which includes mettā – as the basis of our identity. Mettā, or Loving Kindness, is a fundamental part of the four-fold embodiment of Consciousness that the brahmavihāras have been showing us.
The Important Practice of Kindness to the Pretas – Within and Without
In this post I have once again touched on the phenomena of psychological parts. I shall be talking much more about this theme in my next post and in subsequent posts. The attitude that Buddhist tradition calls mettā, or Loving Kindness, plays an important part in innerwork with psychological parts. Indeed this work requires patience, care and kindness – indeed relating to psychological parts and holding them warmly in Consciousness is the very essence of what it means to ‘love ourselves’.
When our inner parts are in deep emotional pain however, and are restless and compulsive, like the pretas, we will probably need a friend or spiritual companion to hold us in their empathetic presence – we may need their unconditional love to help us find our own. The Buddhist tradition has many rituals of kindly benevolence towards the pretas, acknowledging that these are beings who have fallen below a line, below which they can no longer help themselves, and can no longer hear and practice the Dharma. Whether inside or outside, the pretas need our kindness, and our care, and whatever emotional nourishment we can provide, in countless practical ways, before they can recognise their own essential nature as love and beauty and peace.
© William Roy Parker 2017