Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Thing You Fight The Most

“The Holy One directed his steps to that blessed Bodhitree beneath whose shade he was to accomplish his search. As he walked, the earth shook and a brilliant light transfigured the world. When he sat down the heavens resounded with joy and all living beings were filled with good cheer. Mara alone, lord of the five desires, bringer of death and enemy of truth, was grieved and rejoiced not. … Mara uttered fear-inspiring threats and raised a whirlwind so that the skies were darkened and the ocean roared and trembled. …

The three daughters of Mara tempted the Bodhisattva, but he paid no attention to them, and when Mara saw that he could kindle no desire in the heart of the victorious samana, he ordered all the evil spirits at his command to attack him and overawe the great muni. But the Blessed One watched them as one would watch the harmless games of children.”

~ from Buddha, The Gospel by Paul Carus

Jungians love parallels. We love myths and stories that seem to have strong parallels in the stories of a different, or several different, traditions. When there are clear similarities between different stories, we think, “Here is something true.” For Jungians, such a parallel is a validation of the psychological truth of a story. This way of thinking is similar (though, not identical) to the search for replication in the scientific method. The results of a scientific experiment are considered valid if they can be replicated in further experiments. In the study of myths and stories, when distinct traditions show a strong correspondence of image and theme, it suggests that these stories describe an important universal truth about the human experience.

It’s not that individual differences between religious and mythological traditions and the stories they tell are not important. Far from it. It’s just that when there is a striking similarity between stories, it’s a signal to pay attention, a signal that says here is a truth about human experience that has such an intensity to it that very different peoples of very different backgrounds and beliefs have felt it necessary to make a record of it. As Jungians we think, “Wow. Human beings all seem to tell stories of a god or gods (for instance). God is clearly a central concern of human existence.”

The story quoted above is an account of the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment and his subsequent temptation by Mara, “lord of the five desires.” There is a parallel to this Buddhist story in the Christian tradition. Jesus, having just been baptized by John, having just seen the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove, and having just heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my beloved Son,” is driven by the spirit out into the wilderness where he is subjected to a series of temptations by Satan.

In both of these stories there is an event in which the transcendent or divine order breaks through into the ordinary realm. “A brilliant light transfigured the world” or “the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended.” Both stories tell that the divine realm responds approvingly. In the Buddhist tale we read, “the heavens resounded with joy.” In the Christian tale, God himself declares that he is “well pleased.” And in both of these stories, this transformative and transcendent event is followed by a kind of negative movement. The devil—Mara or Satan—tries to undo what has just happened.

These stories describe the defining, transcendent moments in the lives of Buddha and Jesus, but they also present an image, albeit on a cosmic scale, of both the gifts and the perils of the spiritual path. It is hard to imagine that these accounts with their heaven-rending imagery could have anything to do with the lives of ordinary human beings. Let’s face it, very few of us will ever attain the status of a World Redeemer. Ordinary, everyday enlightenment is tough enough and will probably elude most of us on this go around. Jesus and Buddha both seem to brush off the devil without much effort, but if even these transcendent figures must face temptation, how much more will this be the case for those of us struggling on The Way.

Years ago, I was the supervisor of an after-school daycare program. Anyone who has spent any time with large groups of children knows how hard it is to maintain order and, even more, to maintain one’s cool. I would often get disturbed at how often I would lose my temper and act in ways that continue to embarrass me almost twenty years later. Many times I would promise myself that today I would be “totally zen.” I was not going to let little things bother me and I would remain calm and collected. Without fail, it was on those days that the kids would be particularly bad—screaming, hitting, fighting. It was as if they knew I was trying to stay cool and decided to put me to the test. It was a test I rarely passed. Usually, before the day was out, I’d be shouting, too, yelling crazy things like, “If you don’t pick up that Lego you’ll never be allowed to play with any of the toys ever again!”

Today, I am very conscious that there is, too often, a discrepancy between who I imagine I am during times of prayer and meditation and who I am at other times. The phone rings, but I refuse to answer it because I don’t want anyone disturbing the “spiritual” state that I have just achieved in my meditation. Or, I am sitting in prayer, asking to be a force of love in the world and my daughter calls me, demanding a drink of milk, and I growl at her, “I’ll be there in a minute!” Hardly the voice of love. Or, I will be tempted away from meditation and prayer altogether by the TV, the internet, or some compelling new app on my so-called smartphone, eventually crawling into bed with a vague feeling of emptiness and disappointment. These things are relatively minor, it’s true, and there are other, more serious things I do that I am not proud of, but I’ll spare you a lengthy confession.

Alan Watts once said that a person must be very careful about making New Year’s resolutions because the devil would be sure to find out about it and put a stop to it. It seems that our best impulses are always in danger of being cancelled out by our worst impulses. The early Desert Fathers of Christianity used the image of a war with one's own heart. Some schools of Buddhism have pictured a whole universe of demons that must be overcome on the spiritual path.

In Jungian psychology, it has been observed that the first “layer” of the psyche that must be worked through is usually the personal unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that Jung termed “the shadow.” The shadow includes all those aspects of someone’s personality that are not compatible with the image that they have of themselves. For those whose interests tend toward the spiritual, this is often some form of aggression or anger that does not fit in with the conscious idea a person might have of being a peaceful or loving person. Jung once famously said that enlightenment is not achieved by imagining figures of light, but of making the darkness conscious.

And maybe this is the important point in the stories of the temptations of Buddha and Jesus. They tell us that temptation is a constant presence on the path to enlightenment and the greater the light we may attain, the greater the shadow will be. Even the great World Redeemers are not free from temptation. If we do not stay conscious of our darkness, we may never experience our light. How many times must we see a “family values” advocate, like Mark Sanford, admit to an extra-marital affair, or a corruption crusader, like Eliot Spitzer, become corrupted, before it becomes clear that the things we fight against in others might best be addressed in the privacy of our own hearts?

“You always become the thing you fight the most,” says Jung.

It’s not that I believe that we should all feel ashamed about our human failings, but simply that we should admit and accept that we have them. I believe it is important to try to be good, but dangerous to believe too much in our own goodness. Acceptance of our own darkness makes us more compassionate to the darkness in others. And in my own life, I know that when I let go of my airy self-righteousness and get back down to the solid ground of compassion, I feel I am getting closer to the light.

I figure it was not for nothing that when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he made sure that they included the phrase, “lead us not into temptation.”

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