Monday, September 18, 2006

Of Mantras and Maps

Suffering is the ancient law of love; there is no quest without pain; there is no lover who is not also a martyr.
– Heinrich Suso

Practically speaking, in order to learn to love, we need a tool for transforming anger into compassion, resentment into sympathy. We need some kind of brake to apply when the mind shifts into high gear under the influence of anger and other negative emotions. The mind is so used to having its own way in almost everything that all it knows is how to race out of control.

How many of you would ever step into your Pontiac or Toyota if you knew the brakes could suddenly fail. I could say, “You have plenty of gas, a big engine, gorgeous upholstery, and radial tires. Why don’t you go ahead?” You would reply, “But I can’t stop the thing!” Amazingly enough, most of us manage to travel through life without knowing how to brake the engine of the mind.

We can all install a simple but effective brake – the mantram. Whenever you feel agitated, annoyed, impolite, or downright angry, keep repeating the mantram. Gradually the mind will race less and less. When the brake is thoroughly road-tested, you will have the equipment to be patient and kind in every situation. You will be ready to face the tests that real love demands.
--Eknath Easwaran

Before anyone accuses Easwaran of being simplistic and ineffectual in his handling of such wayward emotions as anger and resentment, as though we can neutralize or sublimate them by merely chanting our mantram over them, it would be good to bear in mind that his using the mantram is only one of eight interlocking elements of a broader spiritual path that also includes daily meditation, mindfulness, slowing down, disciplined discrimination and action, altruism, spiritual reading and contemplation, and spiritual companionship. I'm quite certain that Easwaran would be the first to admit that just reciting a mantram won't effectively handle unfavorable emotions unless that recitation is accompanied and potentiated by all of these other complementary practices.

I'm inclined to believe that even this isn't always if ever enough. I think it might be helpful to use the mantram initially to make one's emotional upset managable, kind of like counting to ten, only better. But then it might be a good idea to go further and subject one's upset to some kind of philosophical and/or psychodynamic analysis or inquiry to dispel its disruptive power through an insightful understanding of its origins and context. Otherwise, it is in danger of being relegated to the shadows where it can strike at us as an invisible enemy. Personally, I am trying to integrate Easwaran's "eight-point program" into a broader path or "map" of Kosmic reality and life practice.

Speaking of maps of Kosmic reality, Bill Harryman and Joe Perez have been having a fascinating discussion of Tricycle blogger Lin Jensen's post urging a liberation from mental maps. Here is Bill's quote of the essence of Jensen's post:

Humans are attracted to constructing of their lives mental maps of linear progression aimed at improvement. We draw false and unwarranted assurance from maintaining a ready file of such maps as evidence that we know where we’ve been and where we’re going. We like to think that what we’re doing and where we’re headed amounts to making “progress.” We don’t much like chance events, because they can’t be anticipated or planned for and constitute a kind of messy interference in an otherwise well-designed itinerary. We don’t like sickness, old age, and death at all because these stubborn realities can’t be adapted to our travel preferences.

Joe said:

There's an unwritten, dangerous assumption here: that maps (i.e., world views--psychological, cultural and social constructions and interpretive lenses of reality) are optional. They are not optional. There is no alternative to having maps, unless (arguably) you are going to leave society at an early age to go live in a cave and subsist on the charity of others. (Even then, as a reclusive monk, you have mental maps. They're just child-like and naive.)...We may charitably interpret the Buddhist post not as a condemnation of map making but as a caution to avoid spending excessive energy on mental maps, and to critically examine our mental maps (by using other, more adequate mental maps, naturally) for unacknowledged assumptions of "progress" that confirm our naive prejudices or preferences. Read in this way, the post provides a succintly stated, important cautionary tale...

This is how Bill replied:

Of all the maps available, the Wilberian and SDi models offer me the most in terms of contextualization, which is always useful in an intellectual way. However, as the Buddhism post suggests, maps are a distraction. Maps will not help be more compassionate. Maps will not help me practice non-attachment so that my ego will cling less to samsara. Maps will not allow me to access the Buddhanature within me, you, all of us.And that is where my interest lies of late. Maybe it is because I have the maps fairly well internalized that I can disgard them for now. Or maybe it is because they were and have always been a distraction that I can walk away from them...

Joe's response:

WOW... this is SO VERY VERY different from my own experience. as my map changed, EVERYTHING in my life began to change dramatically, esp. my level of compassion. (How does anyone heal a neurosis? Basically it's looking into a past level of one's development at which a subpersonality split off, and then "treating" it with compassion and love instead of repression and denial. The "map" being the developmental model and psychological models. Maps are indispensable aids for advancing compassion.)

And this is was the comment I posted:

It seems to me that the post in question could be taken not as a condemnation of all maps and mapmaking, but as a caution against mistaking the map for the territory. I'm not sure this is how Jensen, the author, intended it, but this is the lesson I draw from it. I agree with you, Joe, that it's virtually impossbile to eliminate "maps" and their influence from our minds. The trick is to use the best maps we can and to use them well. It seems to me that there are times in most of our lives when we need to focus more on finding the right map or on upgrading the one we've already found, and there are times when, like Bill, we've become so dependent on the map for guidance and so fixated on a final destination we've traced out that we aren't open to fully observing and appreciating the territory around us and flexible enough to deviate from our preplanned route to catch the splendors that await us if we do or to take optimal detours around the roadblocks life throws at us. I suspect that there may always be, in some of us at least, a dynamic or dialectical tension between these tendencies and that this can be a good thing that propels us toward growth or evolution rather than keeping us mired in stagnation. Jensen may discount the idea of evolution, and excessive attachment to the idea can, paradoxically, be stultifying. But discounting it altogether might be equally so.

However, I believer that Umguy may have posted the best comment when he simply wrote:

It seems to me that even in Buddhist circles you still have to articulate, especially in order to help pass on, the experiences that meditation brings. Which is why it's vital to have a map that is well reasoned and comprehensive. Aren't things like right view and such about having a good Buddhist map of the world?We need both. The experience of meditation. And an intellectual map to help take it out into the world.

Right now, I feel more of a need to focus on the map than on the territory so that when I set out to explore the territory, I can do so with utmost efficacy. But when the day comes, if it comes, when I have internalized the map well enough to set it aside with the freedom to wander inviting side roads as well as purposefully walk the main ones, perhaps I will follow Bill's example and put practice above theory unless and until I become so lost that I need to pick the map back up.

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