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Impulse and the Formation of Ego - An Excerpt from The Practice of Pure Awareness

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Dr. Reginald "Reggie" Ray is the co-founder and Spiritual Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation and has been dedicated to the evolution and flowering of the teachings of Tibetan Tantra for more than 4 decades. A longtime student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, today Reggie brings a uniquely somatic perspective to Buddhist practice. Reggie is the author of many books, including The Awakening Body and The Practice of Pure Awareness: Somatic Meditation for Awakening the Sacred. Reggie also offers online courses on somatic meditation and live Vajrayana retreats in Crestone, CO

In order to understand the somatic practice of Pure Awareness and what it is trying to accomplish, let us begin by considering our Soma in relation to what Buddhism calls “atman,” our small or ego self. In the tantric teaching, as we have seen, our true body, our Soma, ever and always abides in a state of complete openness, the naked or ineffable experience that arises within that (“what is there to be experienced”), and a finely tuned responsiveness to our life and our world. In short, it abides in a state of awakening, for this is its basic nature.

At the same time, as we have also seen, our habitual human mode is to live in separation from the inner enlightenment of our true body. This disconnection is not only ironic but tragic, for our Soma already embodies the very realization, fulfillment, and wholeness that we—not just as spiritual practitioners but simply as humans—are always desperately longing for and seeking.

In fact, the Tibetan teachings say over and over that everything we do in our lives—the wild cravings, the seeming random actions, the craziness, and even the self-destructive behaviors—are all efforts, however misguided, to reconnect with our basic being. What is so deeply sad is that we are looking for the right thing always, but we usually don’t have the slightest idea where to find it.

We try and try, but our basic human malaise—our disconnection—just goes on and on. Yet most of us feel we cannot and we will not give up striving, over and over, to win the big poker game of the universe. We may dimly sense that this particular poker game cannot be won, for it is rigged against us from the beginning: after all, we are conditioned, unfree, and mortal. But we won’t really face this, we won’t give in, and we won’t give up. And so we struggle endlessly.

However, perhaps we are fortunate enough to play through our entire hand and come up empty. We played the last card and here we are, having lost again. We see that playing on and on is not going to solve our basic problem of feeling on some level always at odds with ourself, our life, our world; that whatever “it” is, it is not working. And somehow, at least some have the intelligence, the honesty, the integrity—and the grit—not to push this critical realization away. Somehow they find the bravery to stick it out and see what comes next.

And what comes next, so very often, is exactly what many of us fear: hopelessness, depression, and even despair. The dark night of the soul, so well-known in other authentic spiritual traditions. Although extraordinarily painful and even frightening, this insight is perhaps the most important moment of our entire spiritual journey, because we are actually seeing clearly how things are with us, possibly for the first time. Abruptly we are stripped of our naïve belief—our wishful thinking—that our customary ego approach, with its constant posturing, manipulating, and attempts to control reality, is going to get us anywhere.

At this point, it wouldn’t be all that unusual to have thoughts of suicide flash through our mind. “Okay, what I have been trying to pull off isn’t working and isn’t going to work. I can clearly see that. The life that I envisioned for myself is not an option.” It is not quite that we are quitting; it is that something in us has already died. At such a moment, we can feel very, very dark.

When I was around twenty, all of this hit me, the result of wandering around Asia by myself for a year, being not just inspired but also horrified by what I saw. I became deathly ill. I went to see the world, but what I ended up seeing was the reality of my own situation. When I returned to the United States, I felt that my previous identity was bogus and that I had lost all control over my life and my mind; and I found myself in a state of more or less continual excruciating hopelessness and black depression. This went on for about eight years. At that time, my only consoling thought was, “Well, if this gets too much worse, at least I can always kill myself.” The solace provided by this thought reminds me of a woman I heard about who, dying of cancer and in very great pain, insisted on keeping a loaded revolver in her bedside table, in case her suffering passed beyond what she could endure. Though she never used it, it brought her some comfort. The thought of suicide was my revolver. As I have learned through my teaching, this moment in our journeys of realizing our ego games aren’t going to work is truly game changing and not infrequently leads to such thinking. I am not recommending that we all sit around and fantasize about killing ourselves, but I am saying that this absolute existential dead end happens, especially among spiritual practitioners; and when it does, we need to understand what is going on and realize that, while it is the end of the world in one sense, in another way it may not be. We are beginning to discover the wonders of our embodied awareness, along with its openness and freedom, so why do we find it so difficult to stay present with it?

Meditation as Another Way

Life wants to live. It is our nature as living beings always to want to be, to exist, to survive, to continue. And so, no matter how deep the darkness, we may well have a question hovering somewhere in our consciousness: is there another way? At this point the thought of meditation might come up as something to look into. I am not talking here about meditation as a lifestyle choice or as some kind of new technique that the ego can use to make its own thing work better. I am talking about meditation as a method we might consider in a moment of desperation by which to look deeply into our experience, without any other agenda than to find out what the hell is going on with us; as a practice with which to dig down underneath the incessant thinking, evaluating, judging, wishing, strategizing, and manipulating to see what else, if anything, might be there. And so, if we find connection to a tantric lineage, we are invited to enter the somatic realm. In tantra this is the supreme gate to the understanding we are seeking and, in fact, the only one. We may feel inspired to look into our body and its experience because, frankly, what else do we have right now?

We enter into the practice of Pure Awareness with the invitation and the compelling prospect of tapping into our Soma and discovering what lies within that field. However, as our bodily awareness begins to develop, as we try to remain within that awareness, we find ourselves running into an obstacle. We immediately encounter an almost irresistible tendency to separate and disembody; we see how quickly and how often we flee from the direct, naked, nonconceptual experience of our body into our thinking mind. What is going on here? It is quite puzzling. We are beginning to discover the wonders of our embodied awareness, along with its openness and freedom, so why do we find it so difficult to stay present with it?

Let’s reflect on this for a moment. By nature, not just as humans but as mammals and as life forms, we are pleasure seekers. Even one-celled organisms seek pleasure in their own way. All of us, from the smallest beings to the largest, from the simplest to the most complex, seek to live; and, though we humans often distort the process of pleasure seeking, pleasure is nature’s way of telling us that we are heading in the right direction and drawing closer to greater life. Thus, we humans are constantly seeking the good feelings of satisfaction, security, comfort, safety, happiness, satiety. And we try our best to avoid hunger, thirst, physical pain, insecurity, emotional suffering, danger. Some religious traditions denounce and condemn this pleasure seeking, equating it with sin; but, really, let’s not get too down on ourselves. This tendency is fundamental to our own nature as living beings, essential to all living creatures, and part of the sacredness of life itself.

As mammals and, moreover, as primates of the human type, our pleasure seeking is quite sophisticated. We are not talking about bananas here; we are talking about gourmet meals in Michelin three-star restaurants. We seek not only good food, physical comfort, memorable sex, blissful physical well-being, and a peaceful and beautiful place to live but also the pleasure of wealth and other resources that will reassure us about tomorrow; a place in society with status and power; ideas that help us make sense of our fragile, uncertain existence; states of mind that are free of uncertainty and anxiety . . . and the list continues. But there is something else in the way of pleasure that we seek above all: an idea or image of ourselves, an ego concept, that feels successful—solid, reliable, valued, and positive. Making positive sense of ourselves and carrying a measure of self-esteem are highly desired commodities for all of us. Impulsiveness is the immediate and concrete cause of our separating from our Soma, from our own inborn enlightenment.

Here is the critical point: we associate the opposite of pleasure—namely, pain and discomfort—with threat, possible harm, and death. We want to avoid pain at all costs, even if the only way to do so is to block it out of our conscious awareness. And that approach, the approach of repressing unwanted and unwelcome experience into our unconscious, our body, is the default mode of the human person. We tend to go into a state of denial, profound ignorance, and disembodied disconnection from what is going on for us.

The awareness of the Soma is, as I’ve suggested, open and undefended; in fact, it is without boundaries, potentially limitless. The Soma just receives and flawlessly knows what is. That is what enlightenment means in the Vajrayana. But we humans have a big problem with our Soma, precisely because it is fully, unreservedly, and objectively cognizant of all the pain, fear, uncertainty, ambiguity, contradiction, and messages of vulnerability that run through our lives. And of course, this kind of information is always threatening to disconfirm the solid ego concept we are always trying to build up and fortify. So we set ourselves dead against it and negate, control, and suppress the Soma.

As any meditation practitioner knows, the human tendency to turn away from unpleasant, disquieting, or threatening experience shows up big-time when we try to meditate. Sitting there on our meditation cushion, whenever anything dicey comes up, we tend to exit from our bodily awareness into our left-brain thinking mode. We shrink away, going back to our “technique” or conjuring up ideas of peace and clarity—anything that will distract us from what is right here; and what is right here, we push out of our awareness. Not surprisingly, we also do this throughout our daily life. Anytime something arrives that we find threatening, our reactivity is abrupt and instantaneous, so much so that most of the time we are not even aware of it; it ordinarily occurs below the threshold of consciousness. One second, we are present and somatically accounted for; the next, we have fled into some disconnected mental realm of our own choosing. When we sit down to engage in our meditation, whatever type we carry out, no matter how disciplined or devoted we may be, this is the dynamic we run into.

Soma and Impulsivity

Impulsiveness is the immediate and concrete cause of our separating from our Soma, from our own inborn enlightenment. If we can dismantle that blind, almost instinctive reactivity, then our Soma and its state of realization may become more available to us. Initially, impulsiveness is the fundamental issue addressed by the somatic practice of Pure Awareness. If we are left-brain, top-down meditators, what we can’t remain with is our breath; if we are bottom-up, somatic practitioners, it is the Soma we can’t stay with. But meditators all, we face this very same obstacle. There is some kind of powerful impulsive force that causes all of us, without much awareness, to lose what we are trying to mindfully attend to and to exit into our thinking mind.

So what about this impulse? What is it and how may we begin to deal with it? The word “impulse” may call to mind a lack of impulse control, as in someone who acts out uncontrolled, overwhelming emotions such as anger and aggression, jealousy or fear, wild paranoia or compulsive desire. In this common definition, our feelings may be so unbearably intense that we have to off-load them. Thus we might think of someone as being impulsive who acts out without being able to give sufficient consideration to the possible consequences of expressing outwardly such difficult-to-handle and potentially destructive feelings.

While not unrelated to these meanings, the Buddhist term for “impulse,” samjna, refers to something much more subtle and basic. Impulse as understood in Buddhism plays a critical role—in fact, it is the central player—in the moment-to-moment birthing of our rather shaky, porous, fragile ego concept. Our ego is not a solid, enduring entity; rather, it is a made-up idea or thought of “me,” which arises and dies away in each instant. Usually, we are so wrapped up in our thinking and moving so fast mentally that we are oblivious to the impermanence of our ego concept. However, the truth is that in order to maintain the illusion that this ego idea is real, solid, continuous, and therefore reliable, we spend most of our waking and sleeping moments rehearsing and repeating it to ourselves, over and over: “I exist, I am solid and real, I must maintain the continuity of my self-narrative, and I must do this and that with all my effort to remain ‘me,’ for my survival depends on it.”