In my last couple of posts I have discussed consciousness rather abstractly, even when addressing ambivalence and anxiety, which can only be truly appreciated as first person phenomena. But whenever the word consciousness is invoked, it tends to refer to the processes of consciousness rather than to the actual experience of being conscious. Looking at consciousness in this abstract way can be useful, not only for examining its various modalities and functions, but also for gaining a certain critical distance from our first person experiences which can be deceptive. The report of our senses, which comes from an ongoing stream of sensory data that we must select, organize and interpret for our interests, serves a subject or self that appears to operate on a principle of self gratification. But we seek to gratify not only our bodily urges, we also try to confirm our mental conceptions of things. Moreover, we primarily see what we actively look for and tend to ignore anything that seems irrelevant to our interests. But this doesn't mean that we always experience what our mental constructs prime us to see. On the contrary, sometimes we encounter something completely unexpected which can profoundly disrupt our fixed beliefs about experience. At these times, we might simply fall victim to circumstances as when accidents, illnesses and other random misfortunes descend on us seemingly out of the blue. And if we are fortunate, we not only find the means to cope with such losses, we also learn from them. At other times, though, unexpected misfortunes occur and we may feel there is nothing random about them at all. We may lose our relationships, our possessions or our standing in the world, and though we might be genuinely baffled by these losses, they appear all too familiar to us. "These things always happen to me!" we may then cry. And the sense that we have experienced all these misfortunes before, yet never learned what caused them or how our volitions might have helped bring them about, only increases the helplessness we feel. On these occasions, our experience of samsara, the sorrowful round of rebirth, seems anything but theoretical. It manifests itself as a punishing reality that we feel helpless to escape.
Why we don't see the unexpected misfortunes that we spring on ourselves may be regarded as something of a pseudo mystery, though it is no less bewildering for that. But demanding to have our expectations fulfilled in terms that accord with our prior understanding assures a constancy of frustration. And our refusal to see the impermanent nature of the things we attach to condemns us to perpetual disappointment, even when our affairs seem to be working out in our favour. Indeed, this is when the illusion of permanence becomes most seductive. We forget that impermanence doesn't only destroy the illusory objects that we should never have believed in. It also takes away those things that we believe we would always live for--the people and things we love; the causes that we believe are right; the very sense of being alive and sentient. All of these things, worthy though they may be, are metaphysically certain to perish. Yet, quite understandably, we cling to our cherished attachments as if our very being depends on them. Perhaps in a way we are right. For we understand ourselves through our comportment towards the things we cherish and by losing them we lose our bearings, as well as our sense of being in the world. It is possible to see past our attachments and even let them go. But this is no easy task and it is one that few us would undertake except when some crisis of self compels us to do so. Only then, it seems, are we willing to consider letting our attachments go. But then we often discover that our attachments are not always ready to let go of us.
This goes beyond freeing ourselves of relationships and other commitments, difficult though detaching ourselves from them may be. More difficult is freeing ourselves of the habit patterns, the samskaras, that configure our mentality for our being in the world. Samskaras are not themselves attachments; they are the means by which our attachments are experienced as essential to our being. Even Buddhist monks in the most remote isolation must labour to remind themselves about the pervasive power of their attachments. "This is not me; this is not mine; this is not myself, " they say referring to all the mental and physical phenomena on which the self automatically lays its imperial claim. But when psychotherapy encounters attachments in clients it finds that the hold of samskaras on the self can exert an even stronger, more desperate grip than what renunciates face. For unlike the serious contemplative, someone whose place in the world is in peril does not feel that losing his attachments will lead to spiritual liberation. On the contrary, it seems to herald a dreadful self nullification as the imagination for being appears utterly lost.
This appears to remain true even when an attachment such as an addiction is clearly harmful and the addict yearns to be free of it. Even the most terrible vice can be taken as a refuge when we feel we have nowhere else to turn.
In my previous post I argued that ambivalence can lead to an expanded sense of possibility. But we usually feel little hope of finding any such possibilities in the throes of dealing with a painful or stubborn attachment. Struggling with such conflicted feelings can be likened to wrestling with self consciousness. At its worst, it's like facing an opponent whose resourcefulness and endurance are certain to defeat the most determined efforts to find an escape. People often turn to psychotherapy or some other psychological treatment in order to find an escape that they can't find by themselves. And though this is often certainly the right thing to do, finding an escape is not necessarily the best that can be hoped for. Moreover, therapy may not offer any particular insight into any given case of self conflict. Sometimes, self conflict is a sign of self development, intensely painful though it may be. The contradictions of self experience which had once lain quietly buried and dormant may now be emerging into conscious awareness with burning intensity and can no longer be ignored or dismissed as mere curiousities. Nor should they be too swiftly categorised as pathologies which require treatment, pills or the talking cure. There are times when just bearing witness to the client's painful ordeal of wrestling with self consciousness is the best that therapy can do. But we should not underestimate how beneficial such bearing witness can be.
I believe that the communication of self experience is at the heart of all true psychotherapy. Recognising psychological conditions and having strategies to deal with the problems of living may figure importantly into therapy, as well. But therapy achieves its deepest effects when it goes into the depths of the client's self experience and finds those occasions of self reflective wonder that precede every act of volition. I have expressed this in temporal terms in order to convey how fleeting and transitory these opportunities for self reflection are. Usually, in fact, we aren't even aware of them as we go into the future as if destiny ordained our passage. We hardly ever notice that we are obliged to make up our paths into the future as we go along. However, once therapy discovers the hidden source of our actions, meaningful change based on our true possibilities and most conscious intentions becomes possible. But we should not overlook that it was only by virtue of wrestling with self consciousness that we felt any need to make such a liberating discovery.