Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Karma Monster

     “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity.” —Carl Jung

     This post, or document (“document” sounds more dignified), is somewhat of a hybrid of two previous articles: “Hysteria and the Holy Life” (on how religious restraint of natural urges can result in pathological symptoms), posted 15 June 2013, and “The Autopilot” (on how karma as force of habit semiconsciously drives us through life), posted 11 April 2015. It echoes other articles also, and is another attempt at examining a point that I have danced/lurched around several times over the course of this blog. I intend to write on how the force of karma considers itself to be “me,” in a sense, and rebels against attempted deep improvements of the system, seeing them as a threat to its own identity and existence.
     The principle in question applies not only to effects of the so-called Holy Life, but to life in general. Here is a fairly common example: Two people fall in love. They are very happy, exultant even, feeling like they have never felt before in their lives. Then, one of them starts to panic, thinking that the situation is just too good to be true, and abruptly bails out or else begins picking fights and pushing the other person away, leaving the other person totally bewildered, and possibly heartbroken besides. There may be many reasons for explaining this, although the karma monster hypothesis is this: Being so expanded and so happy is too different from one’s habitual mode of existence, putting it in violent conflict with one’s own karma—which, as I have tried to explain before, can be explained in terms of the habitual momentum of one’s mental energy. One’s habitual mode of being sees such radical change as a threat, and fights against it, even though it may be a state of rapture that it is rejecting. 
     (Before moving on I should point out that, going with a more or less Buddhist interpretation of karma, both people are creating the situation; so although the decision of the one rebelling against the romance may seem unilateral, actually deep volitional actions of the other’s karma, though perhaps invisible, are also causing the relationship to end. Which brings up the paradox, or miracle, of everyone’s karma dovetailing and resonating, regardless of how one-sided events may seem on the surface.)
     This kind of karmic reaction can happen when two people at different levels of spiritual development interact closely. Ram Dass, in one of his early books, mentioned something along these lines. He said that when he was doing intensive spiritual practice in India he developed certain siddhis, or “powers,” which could affect the attitudes of other people; so that when he returned to America he found that people with whom he interacted would make remarkable spiritual progress…but that it wouldn’t last, since it was something imposed upon them artificially, so to speak. They would revert back to the original, less happy state. It just wasn’t their karma to be that advanced just yet.
     Similar things can happen with intensive meditation practice, or intensive religion in general. In extreme cases the individual in question may dramatically catapult himself or herself right out of the situation, often inventing incredible excuses for their behavior, or just being too irrational even to bother with excuses. In less extreme cases the resistance of one’s karma may manifest in the form of subtle sabotage. In even less extreme cases it may not be noticed at all, although it is still there.
     A big reason why I’ve been thinking on this subject lately is because during the month-long intensive meditation retreat I participated in recently I was noting my own mind rebelling against the practice in various ways. Following are some odd symptoms I experienced:

     Irritability, etc. While doing intensive practice I found myself at times being unusually irritable. The irritation was usually not directed toward my fellow yogis, or toward anyone actually present (with a few exceptions, like the gardener using a very loud leaf blower for hours outside the meditation hall—one or twice I even momentarily fantasized about punching him); instead I would remember people I had interacted with years previously and feel resentment and indignation, finding fault aplenty…then note it, being surprised at such violent feelings over people I hadn’t seen in years. Frustration and sadness over a long-defunct relationship also arose. Also criticism of the meditation method, and of just about anything else criticizable. 
     Compulsive thinking. There were a few times in particular during the retreat when my thinking mind vehemently insisted upon wandering, running amuck even, with efforts to bring it back to the “primary object” being almost completely futile. At such times the only strategy that proved effective was a kind of cittānupassanā or contemplation of the mind itself, watching the intellect carefully in order to catch thoughts as soon as they would arise.
     Drifting, unresponsive mind. This one was most likely late at night, when I was sleepy, but could occur at any time. The mind seemed shallow, contracted, crude, inflexible, intractable. Attempts to note an object would seem almost futile, since even when the mind wasn’t wandering, the noting would simply “bounce off” the object without penetration, as though I were trying to drive a nail into a rock. There wasn’t much that could be done about it, as the ability to do anything of the sort was itself compromised. 
     “The breathing problem” (dyspnea). This is a peculiar phenomenon that traditionally arises when I do intensive Dharma practice. Technically it is called a “hysterical conversion reaction,” a psychosomatic symptom in which my breathing becomes irregular, and I experience an intense urge to inhale very deeply, like heaving a sigh, in order to make a strange feeling near my sternum (temporarily) disappear. It is somewhat similar to the reflex to yawn. It was distracting and unpleasant, but I managed to resist it much of the time by applying mindfulness: I would simply observe the strange urge to sigh, without acting upon it. It was very similar to not scratching an itch, but just watching it mindfully. (For that matter, some or most of the facial itches I experienced may have been psychosomatic.)
     Compulsive saliva swallowing. Especially during the latter half of the retreat I continually experienced a compulsive urge to swallow while meditating, much more than was normal. Excessive psychosomatic salivation may have been part of the problem; and I usually just swallowed, as it felt as though my mouth was filling with slobber. I applied mindfulness but still obeyed the urge to swallow.
     Tightness in chest, with difficulty in breathing deeply. There were a few times, especially at night, when I was usually most “vulnerable” to my own mind fighting against the practice, when my chest would become very tight, making it somewhat difficult to breathe. Deliberately relaxing the muscles in my chest had little effect, and it seemed that the tightness in question was deeper than the pectoral muscles anyway. It felt as though my upper torso was locking up with tension. It was pretty obviously a kind of passive aggression carried out by the subconscious mind or ego, and at times I just wanted to slap myself for sabotaging the practice.
     “Leaning.” A few times I felt as though I were leaning to the side, or too far forward, or too far backward, and would then apply some mindfulness of bodily posture in order to gauge the situation and correct it. But in such cases I found that I wasn’t leaning at all. It was just another strange distraction.
     Twitches and painful muscle spasms. I experienced an unusual amount of twitching and painful spasms during the retreat, so I suppose that at least some of it was also a psychosomatic symptom of the character fighting against significant change. 
     Discouragement and an inclination to give up. As with everything else that arises, the best strategy for dealing with discouragement is simply to note it and let it go, every time it arises. It’s just a mental state, and is not “me.” 
     “The great forgetting.” A common experience of many people after a retreat is that they feel “blissed out” after leaving it and returning to the so-called “real world”; they can feel the momentum of calmness and mental subtlety continuing from the retreat for days afterwards, especially when dealing with unblissful, hectic non-meditators. I have experienced this in the past also. But after the recent retreat it was virtually nonexistent; there was an immediate dissipation of momentum. It was as though some aspect of my mind wanted to blot out the effects of the retreat as quickly and totally as possible, or maybe it just backlashed automatically as a way of restoring the previous equilibrium. 

     Based on my studies of history and the biographies of saints, it appears that such phenomena as those listed above, and even more severe ones like hallucinations and life-threatening physical debilities, occur even in very highly advanced spiritual beings. The karma-induced flow of unspiritual and even anti-spiritual mental states continues to arise, based upon momentum from the past. According to Buddhist texts, even a fully enlightened being experiences such past-conditioned mental states. The main difference between them and the rest of us is that they are not carried away by them. They are mindful and detached, presumably, and allow them to arise and pass away, without being caught. 
     This explanation of anti-Dharmic sabotage—i.e., that it is caused by the unstoppable flow of karmic volitions from the past—is just one way of accounting for the phenomenon. Another is that a person’s ego or force of character is like an animal, and, like an animal, will fight for its life against perceived threats to its existence. 
     Another way of explaining the phenomenon (and these explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as there is always more than one way of looking at things) is in terms of addiction. It is not only drugs that one can become addicted to. We are addicted to thinking, addicted to anger, addicted to lust, addicted to the unhappiness that we think we are trying to eliminate, addicted to everything we do habitually, addicted to existence itself. (This last, comprehensive addiction is called bhavo in Pali.) Thus when we go “cold turkey” on our addictions we go through a kind of withdrawal, and the subconscious mind starts becoming desperate, and behaving desperately. 
     The next interpretation occurred to me while I was at the retreat: Radical self-restraint like that practiced at a Mahasi meditation retreat has an obstructing effect on the normal flow of our energies. We sleep little, move in slow motion, avoid interpersonal interaction, avoid “having fun,” and essentially avoid everything except self-observation and the necessities of bodily maintenance. Furthermore, when our meditation gets deeper our breath rate and presumably also our metabolic rate decrease to well below the norm. The effect is similar to damming a river, with the usual, habitual energy, or at least some of it, gradually building up more and more pressure behind the dam; and if the dam is not perfect the reservoir behind it may burst through in a dramatic eruption, or more likely find obscure ways of flowing around it. One certainly feels as though one’s natural inclinations are being dammed up. It is a deep, chronic frustrated feeling.
     The obvious question which arises here is: What can we do about it? How do we practice Dhamma without our subconscious ego sabotaging the whole thing and turning it into a mess? One venerated, traditional approach is the application of the principle in the quote by Jung at the top of this post: One cannot simply evaporate unskillful momentum, so one transmutes it into a more skillful form, in accordance with the Law of Conservation of Energy. To give a very basic example of this, it has been well known for hundreds of years that the surest cure for dipsomania (an old word for alcohol addiction) is theomania, that is, addiction to God—or in other words, to “find religion.” Very messed-up troublemakers can really clean up their lives by becoming religious fanatics…with the same intense emotional investment in their new religion as they had for their former troublemaking. Most if not all of them consider this energetic phase change to be an excellent tradeoff, even though some of their friends and family might prefer the old party animal to the new evangelist. But although keeping oneself out of trouble by giving oneself an addiction less destructive, yet of equal intensity, is only a makeshift. One still has an equivalent magnitude of karmic momentum keeping one stuck in Samsara. Ideally the new addiction will be designed in such a way that the person is able to gradually, gently outgrow it, and leave it behind. But it doesn’t always work that way.
     A more advanced alternative, and one more likely to be successful in the long run, if one can manage it, is to practice mindfulness with a vengeance. Watch the addiction, watch the symptoms, note them, and let them go. And keep doing that for as long as it takes. It may be damned unpleasant at times, but we watch the damned unpleasantness too, since that also is a symptom, and note it, and let it go. And if we keep doing it, and don’t give up, then the strength of the old habits/addictions/karma expends itself without being reinforced, and without being simply translated into an equivalent problem. An old habit is like a stray dog: If you keep feeding it, it may never go away; but if you stop feeding it, it may hang around for quite awhile, but eventually it will give up and clear out. The same goes for the ego monster itself. 



  1. Hi Bhante,

    May I humbly suggest the following for your consideration. This I learnt form hard practise and it may help you.

    My observation of all these intensive techniques is that they fail in instilling the seven factors of enlightenment in their order.

    Mindfulness (sati),Investigation (dhamma vicaya) of dhammas.
    Energy (viriya), Joy or rapture (pīti) ,Relaxation or tranquility (passaddhi) of both body and mind,Concentration (samādhi) a calm, one-pointed state of concentration of mind.
    Equanimity (upekkha), to be fully aware of all phenomena without being lustful or averse towards them.

    Especially overlooked is the necessity of Piti. If your mind does not take joy in its meditation object there is no way in the world that you will get anything after that in the list. These seven factors are in order not like other types of dhammas which are often assisting each other.

    Each person has to find the object at a particular time out of an arsenal of meditation objects or suitable reflections that will create piti. A mind after experiencing piti is happy and this can overcome great heaps of pain so that if you learn to create that and feed your mind a technique of meditation that produces it you will never have an unpleasant experience meditating again.

    That means that I guess that most of your unpleasant sensations are caused by not having joy for that object.

    Thats my observation and I hope it helps you.

    1. Piti is another case in point, in this case a more positive one. My experience (and this is borne out by the Dhamma talks of Sayadaws) is that piti often manifests in the form of euphoric rushes and muscle twitches when we reach a deeper level of meditation than usual, and after we grow accustomed to that level the piti subsides. So it's essentially the same displaced mental momentum (=kamma) as before, which doesn't just disappear but is transformed into a different form, in this case a pleasurable one. But I doubt that even the best meditators are experiencing piti all the time.

      And who told you it has to be in sequential order? A book? A Sayadaw? No concentration till near the end?

    2. Dear Bhante, there is one (probably at least two) pali sutta, that list the seven factors of enlightenment in a chain similar to that like dependant origination.

    3. I experienced the desire to be not disturbed n hate people trying to interact with me shortly after meditation last time. I take it as still attached to the serenity n bliss of meditation. After getting feedback I learn to better deal with that as I start to be mindful of that.

      I believe one should aim to reach the mastery of being able to toggle in n out quickly. Ideally moving from various various phase of jhanas, access and momentary concentration and normal more mundane mode in order to mindfully observe them.

    4. I realized it was in order from my own experience combined with a lot of hints layed down in suttas. Look at the progression in certain suttas but just look at the progression in the jhanas as an example. Just take a look at them. Without mindfulness would you be a able to investigate dhamma etc.

      Lets not worry about the best meditators. The ordinary meditator without experiencing a little bliss will not get anywhere. This is my observation and I have seen it in people who have made heaps of effort and are troubled in their practise. It is easily missed and not emphasized as much as it should.

    5. Sure, I agree that piti is important. A meditator is bound to get farther in practice if he/she is feeling joy and enthusiasm over it. On the other hand, sometimes the progress itself is the main cause for the joy and enthusiasm, like being happy when one is winning at cards, so sometimes it's hard to say which causes which; more like a positive feedback loop.

      But the point remains the same, which is that as a general rule mental energy doesn't just disappear, but tends to change form. So it's good to change it into something more conducive to realization of Dhamma. And we may not always get to choose which form it changes into.

      Furthermore, many people are so freaked out by the dissolution of the ego that they will panic and fight against the practice, regardless of any piti that manifested before the panic started. And they may not even realize what is happening due to insufficient mindfulness.

      With regard to the seven factors of enlightenment having to occur in the sequential order of the standard formula, I remain skeptical. For example, no one is going to get anywhere without some samadhi to begin with.

    6. The monk that I know also do not believe that the factors occur in sequence. I will ask him next time I see him why he think it this way. But the sutta clearly put it as in as a dependant chain.
      I ever read about a possible explanation is that mindfulness may result in momentary concentration which may start the sequence.

    7. Yes there is something to your idea that a kammic momentum is causing difficulties in peoples practise. That is true. The only way to overcome that is to do good in all its many forms eventually it will overcome.

      It has concerned me for a long time having organised and run retreats and not being the "teacher" that there can often be something missing in the intensive practice situation that is not being addressed and that it could be more productive with a better understanding of the process.

  2. Indeed I am feeling like I am battling the momentum of the Karma Monster.

    I have had folks tell me that if I accept Christ into my heart he will eradicate my defilements, but it has never been that easy for me.

    I actually watched this fight scene between Kirk and the Gorn recently.

    For me reciting the Pali Parittas is also helpful in overcoming the inertia. But my meditation habit has become very weak. I have this great wish to become a meditative "athlete".


  3. The maxim that a stream enterer is guaranteed to become an arhat in 7 lifetimes at most seems to presumably operate on the same logic of karma exhaustion, no?

    1. Not quite. If we assume for the sake of argument that Theravada Buddhist dogma is necessarily true, then still enlightenment is not a matter of exhaustion of karma. Even an enlightened being has the results of past karma still coming up. Maha Moggallana, for example, was not only a fully enlightened being but a chief disciple of the Buddha, and it was the inescapable result of karma from a past life for him to be murdered. The notion of enlightenment being a matter of karma exhaustion is more a Jain idea than a Buddhist one.