With Tibetan Buddhism and Carl Jung as his guides, Rob Preece takes us on a journey to freedom.
IN THE WEST we grow up with the sense that we must learn to take control of our lives. Little is left to the workings of fate. By the time we are adults, we must be able to make decisions and take responsibility for the direction of our lives. We must become self-sufficient individuals in a society that is ever more competitive and demanding. Central to this entire process is the ego. Having a competent, effective, and confident ego is crucial to success in the world.
As a psychotherapist, I am fascinated by those times when—through factors outside of our control, like illness, loss of work, or a change in circumstances—this entire edifice begins to crumble. At such times we enter a period of uncertainty about the form and direction of our lives. The ego begins to recognize that it doesn’t have real control over what’s happening. We feel lost, unsure of our ground, fearful of the unknown, and powerless. These times of liminality are like a bardo—an intermediate phase between states of being—and can lead to a kind of breakdown as familiar forms begin to dissolve and new forms have yet to emerge. It is tempting to grasp at something that will rapidly patch up the cracks and create a sense of security. We can experience these fearful times as periods of great danger, or we can see them as opportunities to change the orientation of our life. On our journey to freedom these are significant experiences, because they allow us to go beyond the ego’s dominance.
This is an uncomfortable process, often accompanied by great resistance, fear, and even depression. We are required to let go and open to the unknown, and yet we still cling to what once felt secure. It can seem as though there are greater forces at work actively trying to change us. As Buddhists we may not find it easy to make sense of these apparent forces, since we do not ascribe such phenomena to God or other omnipotent agents.
There is a Sufi tale of a man on a quest who finds himself trapped in a huge public bath. The man is alone and knows that if he does not escape he will die. A parrot suddenly appears and tells him that if he can shoot it with his bow and arrow, he will be free. The man has three arrows and quickly fires the first. The parrot flutters into the air, and the man misses. The man turns to stone from the feet to the waist. He fires a second arrow, misses, and turns to stone up to the shoulders. He has one arrow left. What should he do? If he misses a third time he is dead.
This riddle beautifully illustrates the challenge of those times when our conventional ego strategies fall apart and will actually lead to our demise if we go on. The story ends when the man closes his eyes, says, “God is great,” and fires the arrow. This time he hits the parrot and is freed. When faced with no other options, he has to give up to something greater than himself to find a different source of resolution.
Buddhism can lead us to live with a worldview in which there is nothing greater than ourselves that we can give up to. We experience the emptiness of self but remain within the ego’s sphere of consciousness. With no other sustaining presence, not even the wisdom of the Buddhas, we may feel alone. To what or whom do we offer our prayers? Are we like Coleridge’s Mariner, alone on a vast sea with nothing or no one to hear us when we call out for help? Where has the divine gone?
TO UNDERSTAND THE psychological process that is at the heart of these times of crisis, it is useful to consider Carl Jung’s view on individuation. Jung used the term individuation “to denote a process of becoming a psychological 'individual,' that is, a separate, indivisible unity or whole.” To individuate is to gradually actualize our innate capacity to live as a unique individual. Jung recognized that there would be times on this journey when we are challenged to surrender the central dominance of ego to the deeper significance of what he called the “Self.” For Jung, “Self ” refers to the center of our totality—a deeper seat of wisdom that holds a sense of our innate potential as we unfold in our lives. He was not implying that the Self had some kind of ultimate existence, but that it is nevertheless experienced as a center of wholeness, just as the ego is experienced as a center of consciousness. The Self individuates us—that is to say, its “intention” is that we evolve in such a way that the relationship between the ego and the Self matures. At certain times on our journey, the ego begins to realize that it is not the prime mover, that there are forces at work that have far greater influence. The Self asserts a kind of psychological pressure on us to change and become whole, a pressure that can be extremely disquieting as the ego loses its safe, familiar ground. A major aspect of this undercurrent of change is the need to shift our understanding of what is really at the center of our lives. The shift of emphasis from the ego to the Self has been described as the shift from “I will” to “Thy will be done.” While as a Buddhist I find the notion of a Thy somewhat untenable, I have always found the sentiment of letting go to some deeper sense of purpose profoundly meaningful.
As Buddhists, we do not use the term “Self ” to denote the divine, but we should understand that Jung’s “Self ” is an inner expression of our totality, not some form of external God. We could substitute “Buddha-nature” for “Self.” Indeed, Jung saw the deities of the Tantric tradition as symbolic expressions of the Self. In the seminal Mahayana text the Uttaratantra Shastra—said to have been dictated to Asanga by the bodhisattva Maitreya—Buddha-nature is described as our primordial nature, undefiled but not recognized by the ordinary mind. It is “like a golden statue wrapped in filthy rags.” When the obscuring veil is lifted, Buddhahood is realized.
In our journey of individuation as Buddhists, we come to the same points that Jung describes. We are asked to let go of the domination of the ego to surrender to a more profound wisdom. If we do not do this consciously, then the course of our lives will often demand that we change. When it does, we can either fight or accept the process. Perhaps the most dramatic examples of this I have seen are when people are diagnosed with cancer or suffer a heart attack—some crisis that requires them to radically reflect on how they have lived their lives. A woman I know who, in an attempt to sustain an unhealthy organization though a time of internal conflict, found herself holding a huge amount of other people’s emotional stress. Only when she was diagnosed with cancer did she begin to understand the impact this was having on her. She realized she had to stop sacrificing her own welfare and let the organization go.