In my first piece on the unconscious, I focused primarily on western teaching about the unconscious and how to work with it. In this one I would like to outline Buddhist thinking about this, which has many similarities and a few differences from the Western model. Buddhist teachers talk about a storehouse-consciousness, which is the 8th level of consciousness, an unconscious repository of memory.
Like the Western unconscious, it’s a subjective phenomenon that colors everything we do. If ten people look at a cloud, they each see something different—a face, a pillow, a car, or something else.
Next to this storehouse is the seventh level, which creates the sense of, “This is me. This is mine. This is not mine.” In other words, belief in a self which is separate from others. This ego (called manas) keeps a tight lid on the storehouse.
But unbeknownst to us, the storehouse is very active. It stores seeds, each of which is a condensation of a perfume or impression lingering from a past experience.
In my last piece, I discussed realizing in therapy many years ago that that I was projecting onto an older woman whom I will call Kay based on an early experience within my mother stored within my unconscious. Often our lives are dominated by projections like these, which Buddhist Yogacara teachers refer to as resulting in a rushing waterfall of experience, perfume, seeds on and on, so that we never experience life freshly
Furthermore, the storehouse contains both wholesome and unwholesome seeds (and some which are neutral). Those of us who are traveling the Buddhist path have two primary ways of being freed from this rushing waterfall of primarily negative projections. First, we can add positive seeds, which will subdue the rushing. The main practice advised for seed replacement is the Buddhist Paramitas. In the case of Kay, for instance, I practiced noticing when the projection came up and then practicing generosity, noticing how hard she was struggling to hold it all together and trying to be supportive of her in spite of her outbursts. And it worked! I discovered that I could plant positive seeds through my actions and intentions that could improve my relationship with others and soften my ego rigidity.
The second and complementary practice recommended by Buddhist teachers is, of course, meditation. Luckily, the storehouse unconscious not only stores memories. It’s also the seat of our basic nature, unchanging, unborn and fundamentally real. We have the opportunity to see beyond our ego and its endless projections by glimpsing our quiescent Buddha nature. As these glimpses grow, the rushing waterfall of experience, perfume and seeds quiets.
You can see that this goes farther than Jung’s individuation, in which the twins, (or subject and object) are always separate. We discover that as individuals we are undivided from all of life. Within this undivided wholeness our ego loses its grip on storehouse consciousness, and the storehouse manifests itself as mirror mind reflecting all life quiescently without judgment or comment. The ninth century Zen teacher Shen Hui says: “Those who see into the Storehouse have their senses cleansed of defilements, and open to Buddha-wisdom.”
The early Yogacara teachers listed factors that result both in unwholesome and wholesome seeds. Lets look at craving, which is an unwholesome feature. When we crave something we lose attention. We’re distracted, and we want things to be different than they are. In our meditation practice we can:
As we do this we become calmer, and the craving or other negative factors dissipates. When it evaporates entirely, we see the world freshly with our mirror mind or beginners mind.
Little by little it becomes our second nature to recognize, embrace, and relax our grip on our fixations as they enter our awareness. As our grip loosens, we experience a release, a lightening, even enlightenment. My teacher described an enlightenment experience he had while still young. He was sitting in a weeklong retreat, struggling to stay both present and focused, with fixation after fixation paralyzing him. But he kept with it; when it was time for him to have a one to one with the teacher, whose nickname was tanker he went into the small room where the teacher was meeting participants. Tanker, who was built like a sumo wrestler, took up almost all the space in the room, but when Suzuki looked at him he saw the he was tanker and experienced a huge release from his chattering mind and an accompanying heartfelt connection with all of life.
I am convinced that anyone who keeps a regular meditation practice going (including sitting regularly in retreats) can let go of the sticky emotions that come from past experiences and settle into a feeling of non-separation from the world around them and even all of life. I call this an undivided heart.
Even when we’ve experienced this undividedness, we’re still vulnerable to absorbing negative perfume through our activities, however. If I watch too much Rachel Maddow or Amy Goodman, seeds of anger accumulate in my psyche, so that I see everyone who supports Trump through a darkened lens rather than with the mirror mind that heals divisions within my heart.
Luckily, we can access the negative thinking which causes this division any time. We can see how our seeds of projection create suffering for others and ourselves by paying attention to them non-judgmentally as each arises.
But changing ingrained (thinking) patterns is not easy. Four months ago I broke a tendon in my foot and had major surgery on it. My pattern of walking was completely altered as a result of being in a boot/cast for three full months. Now I am trying to get my balance back. Similarly, our ingrained thinking patterns have been dictating our behavior for such a long time that it takes persistent effort to alter them and settle into the natural balance of mirror mind.
In retreats as in therapy, you may notice forgotten scenes from childhood and jumbled scenes of unknown people or you may be disconcerted by feelings of rage or grief.
All you have to do is let those unwholesome seeds come into full consciousness without suppressing them or entertaining them and their energy naturally dissipates. You can start with awareness into any area of suffering and follow it down into the storehouse where the seeds are germinating. You might ask, “Where is my suffering felt most strongly in my body? What are the underlying feelings, images and beliefs that hold it in place?” As you see these as the stuff of illusion, you might experience a natural release.
I led a practice period at our Zen center some years ago in which we focused on the Six Paramitas: patience, generosity, morality, persistent effort, meditation, and wisdom.
One of my most diligent students was Stan. Along with other practitioners Stan focused on trying to introduce thoughts/seeds of patience and generosity into his psyche for the first two weeks. And during the second two weeks he focused on noting thoughts/seeds that came up meditation in a non-judgmental way. During the third two weeks he did both. And by the end of the retreat following the end of the practice period, Stan exclaimed, “It’s like a veil has been lifted!” This lifting of the veil is what meditation practice is all about.
If you’ve been following my last three pieces, you see the similarities between Western and Buddhist teaching about liberating ourselves from our past conditioning—conditioning which most of us are not even conscious.
The Buddhist approach puts a minimal amount of emphasis on figuring out our past conditioning by focusing on abuse and harmful family patterns. Instead, teachers like me help people cultivate awareness of emotion at it arises in each moment both on and off the cushion, so we the rushing waterfall of experience, perfume, seeds—experience, perfume, seeds, no longer dominates our lives and we can experience a natural quiescence.
We have a tragic human history. For generation after generation we have done harm to each other and our environment, caught by the egotistic limitations of the conscious mind. But we can change all that. We can stop hurting selves and others.
We don’t need to live with a divided heart. By both working consciously to create healthy seeds and de-potentiating the power of our negative seeds through our mirror mind meditation, we can deeply enjoy each moment of our lives.
I would like to write about the unconscious, since working with and befriending the unconscious is a key feature of living a deeply satisfying life. The psychotherapist Carl Jung said, “My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious” and the title of a talk Suzuki Roshi gave at Stanford University years ago was, “Zen Beyond Self-consciousness.”
One fascinating parallel between western psychology and Buddhist psychology is the belief that our conscious mind is just the tip of an iceberg, the rest of which we are generally not conscious.
We drive to work every morning, leaving home and arriving at work, but not recalling much about the drive or even paying attention to where and how we park. And we often move through each of our activities, habitually doing things with little or no awareness of our unconscious thoughts or feelings, even though these thoughts may cause painful emotions. These may include statements that we heard many times from a critical parent, teacher, or significant. They became over-learned and lodged deeply in our psyches so they affect our everyday lives without our even knowing it.
There’s a division within Western psychology about the degree to which these unconscious processes are accessible and changeable. In Freud’s view, not only is the unconscious impossible to directly observe, we are utterly at its mercy. However, we can access it by visiting a therapist a couple of times a week or more and relaxing enough to allow our chattering mind to slow down so these deep memories can be elicited. Insight into them frees us from being at their mercy.
Practitioners of modern psychodynamic psychology have maintained one key point of Freud’s in particular. They believe that we can all develop insights into how stored memories from our childhood affect us so they don’t plague us. We can release repressed traumas, anger, sexual frustration, the fear of death, which are lodged in our unconscious. Here’s an example from my own life:
About 30 years ago I was seeing a therapist to help me deal with a work difficulty, a fear I was having of an older woman at work who unpredictably erupted in anger. Kay served in an administrative capacity, but technically had no power over me. As I looked into this with the support of my therapist, I realized that my fear was a projection of fear I felt in my childhood about my own mother’s angry outbursts. I had over-learned the need to flee from my own mother’s anger to such a degree that I was projecting this feeling on another older woman.
Our experience is not only something we cannot control because of the power of projections like these, generally we are not even aware of them. For some time I had wondered why was I afraid of Kay. With the support of my therapist, I learned to see the projections from my mother and little by little free myself of them.
Most modern psychodynamic therapists, influenced by both Carl Jung and Milton Erikson, believe that the unconscious has a positive side which Freud did not see, a side which we can draw on to become more authentic.
Jung is especially close to Buddhist teachers in positing a collective unconscious, which is common to all humanity. This is a shared storehouse holding latent memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past, which Jung believed we can access through therapy, dream interpretation, active imagination, and even meditation.
Both many Western thinkers and Buddhists believe that we can train ourselves to be more open to this deeper part, allowing hidden thoughts and hints to flow upward. Inventors do this, as well as explorers and artists and scholars, creativity in any walk of life requires it. Many of us know about Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, engineer, and inventor. He had been putting tremendous effort into thinking about a seemingly unsolvable problem, which he stopped thinking about and lowered himself into a hot bath. As he was relaxing in the tub, he noticed that the water level rose and suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. He then realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, leapt out of his bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, shouting EUREKA (I have found it)!
Through meditation or some other form of mind quieting, each of us can calm our conscious minds. When internal chatter is no longer impinging, deeper insights which are always near us, may arise, and we can live our lives with more moment to moment clarity and fewer projections.
At the end of his life, Jung suggested that human nature resembled the twin sons of Zeus and Leda: “We are that pair, one of whom is mortal and the other immortal, and who, though always together, can never be made completely one” (i.e. the conscious and the unconscious).
Some interesting neurological studies have been done that give some support to Jung’s insight—research on the left hemisphere and right hemisphere of the brain. The left is the logical, analytic, mathematical side. It is the seat of linguistic consciousness, which enables us to describe and think about the world. The right hemisphere, in contrast, is responsible for our orientation in space, our body image, our ability recognition faces, and various artistic efforts. But it’s completely silent. It’s the seat of unconscious awareness that cannot be coded in language. The process of meditation enables us to activate awareness within the right side. Focusing attention in the present suspends left brain executive functions so that the resources of the unconscious can be available to us.
It seems that our well being depends on the capacity of the right hemisphere to “read” and delight in the textures and patterns of world beyond language.
Here’s an interchange from Chinese Zen in about 900 CE:
When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”
We have a deep power beneath the clutter and distractions of normal thought, which our right hemisphere allows us to tune into. Even though modern research in brain science occurred after my teacher’s death, I am quite sure that this is what he was referring to when he talked about Zen beyond self-consciousness.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher