Sacred geometry

The Theatre of Selves (Part One)

This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
Date10th November 2013
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2013


So I'd like to take the longer time frame that the November retreat affords us to explore, begin to explore, make a little headway in exploring what's actually a huge, huge subject, enormous, and extend that, begin to explore that over hopefully three but maybe four talks over the weeks. This huge subject is one that's often ignored, or dismissed or devalued, in Western culture but also in Dharma circles. And that is the place and the value and the worth of the imagination in practice, on the path, its relationship to Dharma as a whole, and its place, its worth, in our very existence. So big, big subject. Really over the next few talks, just beginning, the very beginnings of entering into this.

And one particular way in -- you could come at it from many different angles; I just want to take one particular way in. Could have chosen others. In order to take that way in, let's actually put the whole thing in a context, a much bigger context -- big picture, if you like, a kind of grand conception of practice and the path and the Dharma as a whole. Big conception of the Dharma: what are we doing here? What is it? We could say, in a couple of sentences, we suffer because we're mistaken about the reality of things. We intuitively think that not just this self but things are real -- everything. We assume a reality to things, to self and to phenomena, to objects, to space, to time, to awareness, to all this. And based on that, we cling, we struggle, and we suffer. The deepest, the most fundamental level of freedom comes through seeing the emptiness of all things. We see that they are actually not real in the way that they seem to be. That's the most fundamental sort of thrust of the Dharma. So it's not really about mindfulness. That's not the point of the Dharma. It's not about treasuring the moment, or being with what is, or being in the moment freshly -- important as that might be as an element or a stepping-stone in the larger picture of the path. Of course it's important. But never, never is it the whole thing. Not at all. Never would that be the goal.

So we might use that language, that rhetoric of mindfulness, but it's only a stepping-stone, an element in a much bigger picture, and that is seeing the emptiness of things, and how all these different practices that we have -- the mindfulness, the mettā practice, the different insight practices -- if you like, they're ways of looking that, through looking differently, the world and the self appear differently. And I start to see this enormous range in what appears, dependent on the way of looking. And some of the ways of looking, especially the insight ways of looking, they actually begin to dissolve, to deconstruct this whole world of appearances. And all this, through these different ways of looking, shows me the unreality, the non-independent reality, the non-inherent existence of things. So through practising different ways of looking, I see that things are not real, and that seeing brings the most radical level of freedom.

Now, couple of sentences there, and for a lot of you, that's going to be a different conception of the path than what you're used to. It's quite a different conception. Some of you were here last year, and over a couple of talks, I elaborated that at greater length, and elsewhere, which if you're interested you can follow up. Within that emptiness of everything, we have the emptiness of the self, of the I, the ego, whatever you want to call it, this anattā, the Buddha's teaching of anattā. And seeing the emptiness of that, of course that's very important, seeing the emptiness of the self. There are many possibilities. And one of those possibilities involves using the imagination. [laughs] So there's a way into all of this!

But let's talk about this anattā, this emptiness of self, just a little bit. Even within that, there are many, many powerful possibilities for practice, different ways that we can reveal this emptiness of self -- many, many. But it's worth saying here that it won't just reveal itself to us. And sometimes people hear the teaching about the self, "And the self is what causes problems, and the self is an illusion," and all that. But just sort of tutting at the self, or recognizing, "Oh, there it goes again, on its ego-trip. There it is again, the bad self, the culprit, the problem," seeing that over and over again, and maybe even laughing at it, that's actually not going to bring a lot of freedom. It's almost, not 100 per cent, but it might actually be useless, just seeing that over and over again and pointing the finger at it, or trying to efface it, trying to erase the self.

So very briefly, I just want to run through some other possibilities -- again, putting all this, what I want to unfold over the weeks, in a context. So, not an exhaustive list, but there are, let's just run through seven possibilities for seeing the emptiness of self. And there are different levels here.

(1) One is just recognizing what definitions we have of ourselves: "I am a contracted kind of person. I'm an angry person. I'm wounded. I'm this, I'm that." It's a definition at the personality level that, if we sustain mindfulness, you actually begin to see, "Oh, it's not quite always true. There are holes in this definition. It doesn't really hang together." So just at the personality level, exposing the self-definitions, and then exposing the fact that they are not always true. They're simply not a solid reality that they seem to be. Freedom opens up at one level.

(2) Second is just through meditation -- and maybe some of you know this, I'm sure -- and the quietening of the mind that comes sometimes, and actually what gets quietened as well is not just the mind but the personality. The whole structure and mechanism and movement of personality just quietens. It kind of grinds to a halt. It stops being fabricated so much. And this personality, what I have so much identified with, is gone, and I move in and out of this state, where there's personality and there's no personality. Personality, no personality. And I can no longer cling to that personality as being really who I am. I've seen something else.

(3) Third possibility is seeing impermanence. Really training the focus on seeing the impermanence of things. And I start to see, outside, inside, everything is changing all the time. This sense of self that I have is more steady, more fixed, and yet all I see is things changing. Where is this self? It starts to reveal the impossibility of the kind of self that I intuitively feel to exist.

(4) Fourth possibility, the question "Who am I?", very popular in some circles, "Who am I?" And one repeats this question, this inward sort of probing: "Who am I?" And you say, "Oh, I'm such-and-such or such-and-such." Who am I? Not to arrive at an answer, but rather to explode, dissolve all concretized limited answers. Who am I? And one keeps probing with that question.

(5) Slight variation, number five, you say, "Is that me?" I'm looking at this, I'm looking at this contraction, or I'm looking at this view, I'm looking at this emotion, I'm looking at whatever it is, that consciousness even, that awareness, that witness. Is that me? Is that me? And one sees it's not. It's not. I don't have to cling to that as me. This one, this number five, "Is that me?", can actually be expanded into what's called the sevenfold reasoning. You systematically look in every possible corner, every possible notion of self that there could be, and you see none of them can possibly be my self. You flush it out.

(6) A sixth possibility. I'm just running through a list, really, here. A sixth possibility is, in meditation, picking up on the sense of clinging and craving, this pushing away what we don't like and trying to pull towards us what we do like. You can see that very grossly, obviously, but it exists at subtler and subtler and subtler levels, this push-pull, push-pull with experience, all day long, most of the night long. And one can begin becoming aware of that, tuning into it, becoming sensitive to that movement, and releasing it, and releasing it, and releasing it. And what happens? As practice deepens, as that process gets deepened, the whole self, not just the personality, but even more subtle constructions of self, get deconstructed because it's the clinging that's constructing them. So there's a process of just constructing less and less and less and less and less self. And one starts to see, "Ah, the self is a construction. It needs constructing, it does not have independent existence. It's an illusion that is fabricated through clinging."

(7) And the seventh one, the last one, for now at least, is to begin to see things that we would usually consider "me or mine," to see them as "not me, not mine." Deliberately to turn the attention on these body sensations, on these thoughts, on this emotion, this awareness, actually see it as "not me, not mine." Unhook the usual self-appropriation. And what happens then? What happens to the sense of self? What does it expose?

Now, all that, I and probably other teachers have talked about each of these in a lot of detail. If any of those pique your interest and you want to explore, you can ask me. I can point you in certain directions. But let's make a point here, actually, that's relevant to the whole thing we're unfolding. In Insight Meditation circles, and actually other Dharma traditions as well, oftentimes what you might hear is, "Yeah, yeah, the self's not real, the personality's not real, but the aggregates are real." And you might hear, "What the Buddha said is that the self is, the true nature of the self is that it is the five aggregates, the process of the five aggregates in time," the aggregates being the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the mental formations (thoughts, etc., intentions), and the consciousness. And the teaching of the Buddha is (according to this view), "The real nature of the self is just that process unfolding in time." And that's taken as a kind of truth, a truth statement.

There are many, many problems with that view, although it's good at a certain levels. Many, many problems. One is that it's not what the Buddha said. It's impossible to find a statement of his to that effect. More importantly, it's limited. It's a limited view. It's limited in depth, because everything is empty, going back to what I said at the beginning. Not just the self; everything. These aggregates are empty too. So rather than taking it as a truth statement, what happens if I, for example, in the last of the seven, I start regarding these aggregates, this body, these experiences, as not-self? What happens when I do that? And again, there is a dissolving, as it goes deeper, a dissolving, a deconstructing, an unfabricating -- not just of the self, but of the whole world of appearances. Something happens, very, very profound, as one goes deeper, and it has implications about the emptiness of everything.

But equally important for what I want to get to in these talks is that that view of the aggregates and the process of the aggregates being the self, being the reality of the self, is that it is limited and limiting psychologically. Psychologically limited and limiting. So sometimes we can pick up a view deliberately, "There is just the aggregates here. There are just aggregates here." And doing that can be very helpful because it simplifies. So sometimes we're overwhelmed with the complexity of some entanglement and some suffering, and actually the teachings of the aggregates, it's just one way of dividing up all that complexity: "Ah, let's look at the second aggregate, vedanā, and the hedonic tone, the feeling-tone." And it's a way of just simplifying. Instead of everything becoming entangled, you can simplify.

So one benefit of this teaching of the aggregates is it's one way to simplify dukkha, at times. But come on. In our life, in the fullness of our life, there are going to be instances, currents, situations, movements of being where that's completely inappropriate. How does that teaching of "there are just the aggregates" fare in a romantic situation? How does it fare in a sexual situation? You're in bed with someone, and you're just seeing aggregates. [laughs] It's an oversimplification that won't be very helpful. It's not the right mode. If we're going to say yes to romance, if we're going to say yes to sexuality and the fullness of what that means, if we're going to say yes to eros, then we have to let go, at times, of that kind of oversimplification and teachings that oversimplify. It's simply not what's helpful if we're saying yes to that. Teachings of "be in the moment," "don't cling," "desire leads to suffering," they're not the right teachings. That's not the right language. That's not the right direction. And even just planning for the future, making commitments, bringing up children that you love, let alone the realm of desire, of eros, of the kind of craziness that happens when you fall in love, and the dark gods and the possession and all that, beauty.

So modern life is psychologically complex. I mean, it's busy complex with all these iPads and this and that, but it's psychologically complex in a way that it wasn't many centuries ago. And in the West, you know, since the troubadours came up out of North Africa, the Arabs, and into southern Spain, and that whole vision of romance and love blossomed in the culture, and Tristan and Isolde and all that, eleventh, twelfth century, whenever it was, that's changed our whole sensibility, our whole sense of self, our whole way of looking at things, with all the beauty and all the complexity it brings. To bring a fantasy of simplism to all that, it just won't serve. It won't serve. It flattens something. It flattens something that wants to blossom.

So I listed seven before, possibilities for seeing this emptiness of self. There are other possibilities. There are quite a few other possibilities for seeing the emptiness of self. One of them is via the imaginal. And one of the advantages of the imaginal is it does not simplify. It's not an oversimplification. It's not simplistic. It can open things up in a different way.

Let's recap that big picture, what we said before. We want to see the emptiness of things. We want to expose the illusion of the reality of things. We do that through practising different practices that are actually different ways of looking, and they reveal the fabricated, constructed nature of perception, of what we see. We see: it depends how I'm looking, and certain ways of looking just dissolve it completely. Why is that so important? Why am I harping on about that? Because the concepts that we have, consciously or unconsciously, are immensely powerful, they become the lenses through which we look at ourselves and the world. Concepts become views, whether we are aware of it or not. Concepts become views, and those views have the power to block or limit our experience. Or they have the power to open and deepen our experience. And especially concepts about the path, and especially concepts about images.

So in these talks, it's a strange thing I want to try to do. You can hear them, and kind of just hear a couple of little techniques that you might use here and there, occasionally. That might be helpful. You can hear the whole thing in that way. You might also hear sort of something a bit further, or choose to hear something a bit further, which is actually weaving in the whole realm of the imagination and the imaginal, centrally into a whole conception of the Dharma that has to do with emptiness, so it becomes very central. You could also go even further, and it might begin to suggest a kind of radical opening or shift or tectonic plate reformulation, crumbling, etc., shattering, in the whole conception of the Dharma, beyond what I already said at the beginning.

So there's a trajectory over three or four talks. You could take a little, you could take a lot, you could take it now, you could save it for later, you can ignore the whole thing. It's like we're on a bus, if you like, and there are bus stops. I won't necessarily call out each stop like some bus drivers do, but at some point, if you're following, it will be clear, as Dorothy said, "I don't think we're in Kansas any more." Something's gone a bit beyond, or quite a lot beyond, not just typical Dharma conceptions but also typical assumptions and conceptions of modern psychotherapy.

There are different kinds of talks, and this talk, partly it's just little helpful things over the time, over the three, that you can use here and there, but it's also a talk about questioning and shaking things up at a very deep level. Sometimes it's time, you know, it has to be the right time to question, shake things up, and sometimes it's a matter of personality. Many of us as human beings don't like to question too much, to shake things up, for different reasons.

All right. All that was introduction [laughs], for a long stretch of talks. But let's start somewhere very, very familiar. Or at least hopefully a bit familiar, not too much of a stretch at all, because actually we already, or many of us, will already be using images and already be using the imagination in practice. For instance, the mettā practice and the loving-kindness practice that many of you know, we oftentimes imagine the other. It might not be a clear visual image, but we imagine the other to whom we're giving mettā. We can imagine them happy. We can imagine them surrounded and suffused by light that is mettā, or light emanating from us towards them. It's all the imagination. Some people, the way they do the mettā and compassion practice is actually imagining Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, or Avalokiteśvara or whoever, or Jesus, or the Dalai Lama or someone like that, or your grandmother who was very sweet and kind. There's an imaginal figure that embodies these qualities of mettā and compassion, and one can imagine them and receive that mettā and compassion, imagine receiving that flow from them, imagine them radiating those energies, those qualities. One can imagine being the bodhisattva of compassion, being Kuan Yin, being whatever you want to say, the cosmic Christ or whatever, and you can imagine it in others. If you know Mother Teresa, her secret was to see Christ in everyone.

There are those possibilities. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha talks about recollection of the Buddha. When you're feeling a little uninspired, you actually think and imagine the Buddha, and it brings energy, it brings inspiration, etc. We don't talk much about that practice. And some of you will be familiar with tantric practices, where you actually imagine a deity and visualize or become that deity, etc. Also in samādhi practice, and we talked about this earlier last week, with a lot of practice, with a lot of developed skill, you can actually begin to just imagine pleasure in the body, maybe an area that feels painful or contracted, and with practice, you just see that and decide to imagine it as pleasant, and lo and behold, that area becomes pleasant. There's a shift in the perception, an opening of the perception. What was unpleasant becomes pleasant and stays pleasant through the imagination. One can imagine the body opening and suffused with pleasure or well-being or happiness or other qualities too. One can imagine energy flowing and moving in the body in different ways, opening up the body. One can imagine and perceive the body as a body of light -- an area of light or a delineated body of light, luminous. And one can imagine two lines of energy. So for example, a line of white light from the base of the spine up the back, up the uprightness of the body, perhaps out the top of the head, out the legs, perhaps not folding at the knees but just going out, and you've got this triangle of luminous energy. What happens if you just imagine that? Interesting. Play with it.

Now, someone might be listening and say, "Well, why, why would you want to do all that? Why?" They're a bit suspicious of all that. Well, in the mettā practice the simple answer is because it brings mettā, it cultivates mettā, it empowers the mettā. Imagining Kuan Yin, imagining the light, imagining the other, it brings more mettā, and the object is to cultivate mettā, that's why. And in the samādhi practices, it's because it brings samādhi. It helps bring the mind and the body into that unification we talked about in the first week. Remember, samādhi is not focusing the mind; that's not what the meaning is. It's just the mind focused. It's this unification in well-being. It includes focus. Imagining the energy body this way, or whatever, the light, etc., it undoes the knots in the subtle body. And this here, this field of perception that we call the body becomes unknotted, open, pliant, luminous. It brings what the Buddha calls "a pleasant abiding in the here and now, a skilful and wholesome abiding in the here and now." That's how the Buddha describes samādhi.

And just as important, through that process of imagining, we begin to see and learn and understand about the fabrication of perception. As I said in the first talk, that's the most important thing in the whole of the Dharma. We begin to understand how this perception of things is constructed, fabricated. If my conception of the Dharma is more about being with what is, being mindful as "that's what the Dharma is, that's the point of the Dharma," then all of this will seem completely valueless and actually moving in the wrong direction. But again, that's not what the Buddha said the Dharma was. He never says about "being with what is" or "just being mindful" or anything like that, and that's not my conception either.

Okay, so working with images, one can deliberately instigate, conjure and shape an image, if you want to. You can actually deliberately decide to do that, or it can arise spontaneously. Sitting, walking, just sitting around having a cup of tea, going for a walk or whatever, and an image arises spontaneously. So it could be deliberate or it could be spontaneous. For example, in what we just said, that sense of the body being a body of light, it often arises spontaneously in states of deeper samādhi, but it's something that you can deliberately conjure, instigate, form. And the body of pleasant energy, again, it arises typically spontaneously, but it's also something that you can learn to more deliberately instigate. So spontaneous and deliberate, both.

Also, just an aside: I want to, as we go on through these talks, amplify and expand what I actually mean by an 'image' (because it's more than what we tend to mean originally), just here to point out, a body of light is a visual image. Body of pleasure is a kinaesthetic image. So when I'm talking about images, I'm not always talking about visual objects.

But if we stay with those two examples, going in and out of a different sense, a different image of the body, actually the self-sense changes. The typical self-sense is being moved out of its usual constrictions into another sense. And this undermines, it opens, it loosens the usual self-sense that's got too stuck, too solidified, too concretized. So even just that is doing something. It's elbowing [room], it's making flexible the sense of self. It's hugely important.

But let's dwell a little bit more directly on the self and the level of the personality, and a phenomenon that most of us are familiar with, the inner critic. This kind of self-attacking that happens, self-denigrating, the haranguing, the badgering that we often have, self-judgment. When that arises, it can feel sometimes as if there's someone in there who's got it in for us and just endlessly wagging their finger at us and judging, etc. So it can feel like there's a person inside. And one possibility is actually to depersonalize, deconstruct that person. Actually see: it's not a person, it's just elements. There are thoughts. There's belief of certain thoughts. And there's aversion, and perhaps there are hindrances. So what seems like a congealed character, you're actually deconstructing, and that can be helpful.

But also possible -- and again, this could be spontaneously or deliberate -- is actually to constellate that inner critic, those voices into a person, an imaginal person. Let it take shape, let it take form into a person, persons, a figure, or animal, whatever it is, animals. And begin, if possible, to dialogue with that person, with that imaginal person. Enter into relationship, into dialogue. Usually we don't with the inner critic, because we're so harassed and harangued that we turn the other way, trying to flee it. What if I turn towards, open to, engage, relate, dialogue?

And if we open that up a little bit, in dialoguing with this person, I could engage in the dialogue in a way that I'm actually challenging the inner critic back. I'm questioning them. Everything they say, I question it. I'm bringing all my intelligence to bear. And I actually find that I am more intelligent, you are more intelligent than your inner critic, who is often not the brightest of characters. So it's got a little balls, if you like, in the response. One possibility.

The other possibility is actually to try and understand this inner critic character, to bring kindness, empathy into that, softness in the dialogue, in the approach. So both deconstructing, depersonalizing into elements is helpful, and also, can be, letting it constitute into a more formed image and entering into a relationship with that image. Both can be helpful. It is not the case that only the first is ultimately true. Actually, neither are ultimately true. It's not really the ultimate truth of this inner critic that it is just thoughts, feelings, aggregates, etc. Not ultimately true. Both are helpful.

Sometimes when we dialogue, when we enter into this kind of imaginal relationship a little bit (and I'm just talking about the inner critic now), we actually see that what seems like an 'inner critic' turns out not to be an inner critic. I need to get closer and I see, "Oh, it's not an inner critic at all!" It might turn out, for instance, to be a kind of familiar but clumsy old protector. It's saying and doing all this and haranguing -- it wants to protect you from being shamed or rejected or failing or this or that. And it's just incredibly clumsy (he, she, it) in how it's going about it. So what happens if then I get that sense of this clumsy old protector, and let the imagination of that, let the image of that fill out, explore it, relate to it? Maybe it transforms, maybe it doesn't. But there's the possibility of a dialogue. There's the possibility of relationship.

Someone a while ago on retreat, I suggested this to, and she had a lot of inner critic. She turned towards that voice, and she asked it what it wanted, and asked it why it criticized so much. And to her enormous surprise, she heard a very gentle, very loving, kind voice reply, a response, saying, "I want you to use your full potential." And she was so surprised and so touched by the meaning, and also the kindness imbued in that, it brought her to tears. Something completely softened and melted. Is it really the inner critic when we think it is?

I have a friend who talks a lot in certain situations about her inner critic coming up. She calls it 'superego.' But sometimes I wonder: is it really that, or is it conscience, is it your conscience coming up? Is it, if we use a certain word, is it some angel? And I don't mean that word in the sort of twee New Age way. I mean it in the way someone like Rilke would use it -- something formidable. Some angel that's actually wanting more. Maybe more authenticity, more energy, more connection, more listening. Maybe it wants more work, heaven forbid! Maybe it wants an expression of something that typically we judge, and that's -- the inner critic is judging this expression that is being called for, this manifestation which has a certain style that we judge not to be okay or spiritual or appropriate or whatever. That's something I'm going to return to in later talks. So careful of the assumptions and oversimplification, or oversimplified models of the self or psychological models.

A friend was on a retreat a while ago, and we were in an interview, and she was talking about a lot of pressure, the sense of pressure in the retreat that she felt, that there was so much pressure on herself. She felt a lot of pressure to really work hard and do it, and it was constricting the whole retreat, and it felt very oppressive. And the assumption was, "It's the inner critic." That's how she languaged it and that was the assumption. We were talking a little bit, and she said her mum who had died not too long previously (I'm not sure exactly how long), "My mum was so wonderful," she said, "and it's hard to live up to that standard."

So what started off as the inner critic, she segued without even quite realizing it into this talk about her dead mum. And I said to her, "You know, she's still alive. She's still alive as an image, as, if you like, a person in the psyche, with a certain autonomy. She's actually still alive." Now, she knew exactly what I meant. We're not talking about someone who was in denial about her mum actually being dead, and we're not talking about a kind of spiritualism about communicating with the séance boards and all that. I'm not talking about that. We're talking about images, and what exists for us and has power for us as image, and resonance and depth, and what moves the soul.

So she got it. And I said, "There's a kind of duty there. There's a duty." But that word can be so heavy for us in English. I don't know another word right now. But I said, "Maybe you have a duty to that, a duty to that image. And maybe that duty is a beautiful duty. It's a beautiful duty. And maybe her (the mother), maybe her kindness, her generosity and all these other wonderful things, wants to come through you. Maybe she (in other words, the image), maybe she wants that. She wants that to flow through you, maybe." And she resonated enormously with this, and wrote to me some time afterwards about how freeing it was, how touching and how beautiful, how life-changing it was, as a shift in perspective, an opening of the perspective. And again, not concretizing anything. It's not spiritualism, and it's not denial about the fact of some person's death. We're talking about ways of looking, shifts of perspective that can be entertained. Now, it's complex, too, because there were other patterns that needed to be let go of, so it wasn't completely that simple.

But sometimes, again, we need to explore something more fully on an imaginal level. A person says, "Oh, he's so driven," or "I'm so driven," or "They're a perfectionist" or whatever, and with typical assumptions: "That's terrible. How awful that someone is driven. What a catastrophic thing for someone to be driven," from a certain limited perspective. T. S. Eliot has an essay, "On Poetry and Poets," and he wrote in there of how one can be "oppressed by the burden which he must bring to birth." We could go off on a tangent about art and the Dharma, and how sometimes through Dharma assumptions we actually limit what's possible in Dharma art, etc., but I'm going to leave that.

Another person in an interview came in judging, judging the distracted mind. Very typical, and we talked about that in the first week. But something particular, what he said, he said, "I'm having all these daydreams, and they're all about the heroic self saving or helping people or the world. It's just all about this stuff." Now, I could have agreed: "Yes, that's the self. It wants to inflate itself. It wants to be centre stage. It wants to cast itself as brilliant, of course." But hearing the assumptions underneath, implicitly there -- sometimes they're spoken, sometimes they're underneath -- that (A) it's an ego-trip. All these daydreams are basically ego-trips. They're ego, and self-building, self-inflation, papañca, ego-proliferation. That assumption was there.

Secondly, another assumption, that the actual motivation was really somehow, through all these daydreams, or even trying to do that in one's life is actually to seek approval: "That's the real motivation, to somehow get loved, to be loved, because probably my self-worth is low, and probably I didn't get enough love when I was a child," etc. That assumption lurking just under the surface, or actually above the surface. And so the whole thing becomes mostly a way of filling a lack, of trying to fill a lack. Very, very common assumptions. Maybe true to some extent, sometimes. But really? Is it really? Have a look. Is that really what's going on? Is that even the greater part of what's going on?

Or is it, could it be sometimes, that something or someone, whatever language, in you, whatever you want to say, something, someone that wants, that longs, longs, to serve, in this, in his case? Longs to serve. Longs to be devoted. Longs to sacrifice, even. Longs to be heroic. Certain myths are calling, certain myths are making demands, are pulling, pushing. And again, in this instance, moved to tears by that shift in perspective. Something resonated much deeper than the typical interpretation of that. Much deeper. We're talking about a much, much, if we use the language, deeper level of the being than the typical assumptions and first judgments based on what we've heard and just blah blah blah.

So yes, if I say myths are calling me, yes, of course there's a danger in that. Of course there is. But you know, there's no such thing as a practice or a path without danger. All practices, all paths bring their particular dangers. When we are in the world, the realm of appearances -- in other words, out of very deep meditation when appearances fade -- whenever there is the world of appearances, there is self. Where there is appearance, there is self. There are always selves. And those selves are always presented, they're always imagined in a certain way. We are imagining self and other and world, always. There is what we might call the inevitability of fantasy -- I say sometimes the necessity of fantasy, because there's beauty in that, and there's depth and there's opening and there's possibility. The inevitability and the necessity of fantasy. What's important is not trying to get rid of that fantasy, as we might usually believe, but actually seeing image as image, knowing image as image. This is image. And engaging with it rather than disengaging. Knowing image as image, and engaging, rather than dismissing, trying to erase. Because then we have the myth of no myth, the rhetoric of no rhetoric.

So it may be that, if we use this language, the demand, the push, the pull of an angel or a daimon, if we use that word (we get our word 'demon' from it), is not actually the inner critic. It's something else going on. It's nothing to do with a fear in some cases, it's nothing to do with a fear of not being good enough, of needing to prove oneself, of not having enough love. It's not about that. I could give many examples. Just think back to the ones I just gave. And we start to explore in a different way, and we start to feel, "Am I really just one self? Is this here one? Is it one Rob? Is that the nature of the self? Is it one?" Are there others? Are there others, say, in or out, whatever? And might I have responsibility to those others? Might there be responsibility to those others? When the feeling and the concept is of one solid ego, it constitutes, it will constellate, because of the one solid ego, it will tend to constellate the inner critic. Where there is a sense of a unitary, single self, it will tend to constellate the inner critic.

I don't know how much that's actually partly got its place in the history of Western culture. With the Reformation and the Western Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution there was a shunning, a dismissing, a putting aside of the whole realm of the imaginal, and that was exactly the time in the culture where the language of self was initiated. You don't really hear that word, or self-regard, or self-love, or self-this or self-that. It's around that time when the whole world of images was, tried to be swept out the door. Interesting. And with the decrease of the imaginal, maybe the increase of the inner critic. Maybe.

So this decrease of the inner critic can come from different ways, of course. It can come from, going right back to the beginning, it can come from seeing the self as a process of aggregates, deconstructing. Of course it can. And certainly from seeing deeper emptiness than that. That's one way. It can come, this dissolution of the inner critic, through more mystical experiences that can open up at times: the self dissolving, the self opening into oneness, into infinite love, into infinite awareness, etc. And that does something, relativizes the whole sense of self. And those kind of openings, if we go back right to the beginning, those seven possibilities that I gave, those are among the experiences that can open if you follow those kind of practices. And thirdly, it can come through opening to the realm of imaginal figures, and actually seeing: this self is not one self. There's a multitude here, a plurality. None of those three -- deconstructing the self as aggregates, a mystical dissolution or opening into infinite love or oneness, or the imaginal figures -- again, none of them are ultimately true. None of them. Not A, B or C. None of them. What they are, they are all looseners, all looseners of self, underminers of belief in a solid self. They are all ways of looking, and they all open up slightly differently, or sometimes quite differently.

One more example. Again, person on retreat here, inner critic coming up a lot. Never good enough, judging -- the usual stuff. He said, "Oh, it's the usual stuff, I'm never good enough," this inner critic. And we were talking a little bit: "Can you explore that voice? Turn towards it and explore it as image." And the first thing that came was images of his parents. So this inner critic voice constellated as images of both his parents. But then he was with that and exploring it a little more closely, and he said, "Actually, honestly, they're not really my parents, because my parents were way kinder than these guys." And again, it wasn't a question of denial about the actual nature of one's childhood which was so painful that I have to pretend that it was all rosy. It wasn't that; this person had done more work than that.

These are, what we could say, realities of the psyche, if you like. And they're not to be literalized into actual parents. And they're not to be reduced into "they represent this or this." I'll say more about not reducing in other talks. But in practice, then, he was able to use the sensitivity to his own emotions and everything that was going on as he engaged with these images, and use the mindfulness of the body, and the sensitivity to the emotions, and the emotional responses to them, of being fed up, being angry etc. And what happened was then it opened up into a whole host of persons. A whole cast of characters opened up. I only remember a few of them, but they involved what he called the 'good boy,' the 'naughty boy,' the 'frightened boy,' 'the hero,' the 'bad guy.' There were others I can't remember. And this bad guy was actually initially, the thought was, "Oh, it's evil," and there was a bit of fear. But actually, again, he dared to look a little closer, to engage a little more closely, and he said, "It's not actually evil. It's like a theatre. It's like an actor." So theatre opens up. It's a certain style.

Mindfulness with the image, sensitivity with the image, with the resonances that are going on (I'm going to talk a lot more about practice next time), mindfulness with the image, as well as, as I said, seeing image as image, creates a safety. It creates a safety net. What's dangerous is images operating without our being conscious of them, or taking them literally. Seeing an image as an image, being mindful of the responses, the resonances, all of that, it brings them to life, gives them their power in certain ways, and also takes away what might be an unhelpful power, what might be an unconscious power.

But playing in this way, this person and many others, and I think one will find, as there's a plurality, a population, a multitude is opened up to, the more it goes away from being a singular self, the less the inner critic -- the less the power of the inner critic, and actually the less inner critic. More persons imaginally, less inner critic. And this person, this man found, and one will find, that through playing in this way can actually come a disidentification from the usual sense of self, the usual me. So again, we walk around with such a concretized, such a reified, unmoving sense of self, and we just take that for who we are. And exploring more in this way, for instance, brings a disidentification, brings a fluidity, an expansiveness, a flexibility, in the sense of self that becomes available. Disidentified from the usual me. And in his words, he said, "All these imaginal persons, they're all me, and none of them are me." And that's exactly right. They're all me, and they're all not me. But with this plurality that opens up in the imagination, I, me, I come to see, I'm much bigger than I thought. I'm not what I thought.

He also reported -- and again, he's just a typical instance, because this will be very, very common and something I want to highlight -- that through all this, he was actually able to access previously unavailable qualities and energies. Things, ways of being, openings, energies, etc., that were not really available to him before became available through these imaginal persons, so that they were vivified, bought to life. They were empowered. Not just a self deconstructed, but a theatre come to life, given life, given power.

Right, this is the last thing I'm going to say for today, but what I want to say is that I don't want to stop there. Just that much might be quite familiar to some people in here. And it's okay. It's fine. It's one bus stop. But I definitely do not want to stop there. In dialogue -- that word, I looked it up; it's not quite what I'd hoped it had, the etymology, but I'll bend it a little bit. Dia + logos -- logos meaning 'word,' 'dialogue,' 'conversation,' but also logos meaning 'framework,' 'perspective,' 'sensibilities,' 'qualities.' So that in engaging with these imaginal persons, we're actually entering into dialogue with other perspectives, other qualities, other sensibilities. And this is where I want to really go beyond where I've arrived to, because there comes to be the potential of a transvaluation, to use Nietzsche's word. It means looking at our typical values from the vantage point of other values, transvaluation (I don't know what the German is). The whole structure of thought, belief, being, way of being, style, existence, gets looked at from another perspective, from another style, and also converses with that style, gets relativized, etc. Something gets opened up and questioned. And if we go back right to the beginning, we get to see in other ways, which, as I said, is part of what we could conceive of the whole Dharma project being: to see in other ways. It's one way of seeing in other ways.

Okay. Let's leave it there for today, and we'll continue later. Let's have a bit of quiet together.

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry