The Zen Mirror Beyond Narcissism and Depersonalization

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Human understanding is like an irregular mirror, which distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)1

The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection. The water has no mind to receive their message.

Zenrin Kushu2

A mirror reflects. Water reflects the geese flying overhead. Instantly, unsentimentally. Reflection does not change the mirror, the water surface, or the geese. It is an optical process, a fact of life.

When waves no longer ripple the water's surface, it finally reflects the moon. Some day, some year, when the Zen aspirant finally drops into that same calm, unruffled state, the awesome lunar perspective will emerge (see chapter 138). As the brain instantly images reality, directly and clearly, it seems to act like the surface of a mirror. Zen frequently uses this analogy of the mirror to imply that one's perceptions register in the same way that still water accurately images the moon overhead. Nothing else enters in: no self-centered notions, no intellectual interpretations, no old emotionally loaded associations. So the reflecting mirror of Zen symbolizes the natural, immediate way the brain works preconsciously.

Thus, when Master Huai-hai (720-814) was asked, "What does right perception mean?," he would answer, "It means perceiving that there is nothing to perceive." But fortunately for all, the junior monk persisted, asking, "And what does that mean?," At this point, his Tang master finally became more explicit: "It means beholding all sorts of forms, but without being stained by them, because no thoughts of love or aversion arise in the mind."3

In contrast, we in the West find that our roots of the word reflection take a different turn. They mean a bending back. Francis Bacon understood that humans do bend and distort the true nature of things, discoloring them with our personal interpretations. Let us again specify precisely where these maladaptive distortions come from: it is from the ignorant side of our I-Me-Mine complex, not from its natural actualizing, buoyant, and compassionate functions.

Greek mythology gave us Narcissus. We still pay homage to him with every sidelong glance at our face in the mirror. And it would be another reflected face, also within our Western traditions, which would pose the rhetorical question, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" The question seems to be the essence of narcissism, that value-laden word which suggests that the viewer is both neurotically absorbed in self and turned away from society. Some would say that when a meditator retreats into the posture of zazen it implies a similar inward turning, a mere preoccupation with what lies below one's own navel. So they ask: Don't meditative disciplines simply foster that other form of self-worship, the one already well-known under the term narcissism?

People who seem self-absorbed don't necessarily have a narcissistic personality disorder. A decisive question is, How do they see other persons? Healthy people see others existing as separate persons. In contrast, narcissistic people view others as only grandiose or devalued extensions of themselves.4 By such criteria, narcissism represents one more example of that old inturned, Ptolemaic mode with which our I-Me-Mine bent the mirror and routinely distorted the image of other persons. True, Zen meditation does require plenty of self-discipline to escape from distractions and to make time for sitting. But does the whole process of Zen aim to magnify or adore the self? No; to dissolve its fictions.

So any notion that Zen might be narcissistic arises out of a profound misreading of both Zen and narcissism.5 Zen meditative practice leads the person out of narcissism, not into it. For whatever reasons students begin Zen, their path thereafter is progressively humbling. Stunned by the way kensho's swift stroke has cut off all self-references, the residual diminutive i is doubly awestruck (a) by the enormity of what was lost, (b) by how much of it soon returns. Thereafter, the long meditative path leads increasingly outward, in the direction of selfless, compassionate service to others.

Another term, deperserialization, sounds more ominous. It describes the feeling that the near side has dropped out of the self/other boundary. In depersonal-ization, experience loses its usual, highly subjective, private affective content. In absorption and kensho the experiant also loses this inside, personal self-identity If Zen sponsors such depersonalizations, doesn't this imply that Zen and deper-sonalizations are both pathological?

Depersonalization experiences occur spontaneously in many well-integrated normal subjects. The episodes last only a few seconds or minutes. Thirty-nine percent to 46 percent of college students reported having them in studies published during the 1960s. The same figure of 46 percent was also found in a study of exceptional high-school students.6 Depersonalization episodes also occur nonspecifically in association with neuroses and psychoses, and with or without exposure to drugs or to loss of sleep.7-8 Not unless they last longer, or are ongoing, are they classified as a "disorder" that falls among the dissociative disorders according to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In contrast, during derealization, the change takes place on the outside of the self/other boundary. On this instance, the environment is perceived to be unreal, estranged. Again, normal persons sometimes experience such brief feelings. Only when "everything" continues to feel like an ongoing "dream" is there cause for concern. Derealizations also lack specificity, and may even coincide with depersonalizations.

I vividly recall the only episode of derealization I ever had. I was seven or eight years old. My mother and I were walking downtown looking off to the right toward some dark, empty, store windows. Their panes were so angled that they converged with our path ahead. As a result, we saw ourselves walking in several reflections at once, each glass pane serving as a kind of large mirror. So here we were: walking in real life, shown to be walking in the image of one mirror pane, and also shown as walking in the reflection from another. A moment before, there had been only one, actual, "real-life," walking. Now I had two extra visual images, and they weren't congruous with my preexisting mental set. At this point, everything became highly unreal for a few seconds. I was troubled by the discrepancy, challenged by the deeper issues it raised. How "really real" was our ordinary life? How does one know which reality is the real one? The questioning still goes on.

People react differently when their perceptions of reality change on either side of the self/other boundary. Most normals who still preserve insight can adjust to an alteration of their inner or outer reality set. However, when depressed patients lose their warm sense of personal subjectivity they feel that a profoundly unpleasant psychic gap has opened up. In their lack of feeling they perceive a worrisome distancing from other persons and things. It is a major loss.

Fortunately, the kinds of boundary changes that emerge from the meditative context are beneficially alloyed. Yes, the person's former implicit physical self does drop out in internal absorption. But the experiant is then taken up into the highly positive connotations of a vast, silent space suffused with bliss. Yes, during a major awakening, every last subjective root and branch is cut off. The Buddhist technical term for this is annatta, the state of non-I. But the event is not perceived as loss. It is perceived as being totally emancipated from every previous bond implicit in the I-Me-Mine. Moreover, this flash of insight brings the experiant into wordless contact with the sense of eternal Reality itself, in all its immanent perfection. So this event conveys the finding of true Realization, not its loss.

These other positive attributes bring to absorption and kensho a sense of awe and grace. They convey no uncomfortable sense of personal loss, no troubling sense of unreality. So the other two old psychological terms don't fit. Perhaps /'mpersonalization and neorealization might be closer to the mark. However worded, the two large categories of states we will encounter in Zen are certainly not "disorders" in any psychiatric sense. Very seldom does the experiant find these are unpleasant, either at the moment or in retrospect.

Japanese Zen imported its orthodox traditions of Chan from the mainland many centuries ago. Rigidities are built into its systems of ritual and custom. Such conservatism is not quick to respond with enthusiasm to the gamut of today's New-Age religions. But Zen's critics still go on accusing Zen of the same, age-old faults of narcissism, and worse. Ferguson rises eloquently to defend those in today's Aquarian cultures who have been similarly indicted. Yes, she replies, "Critics call them narcissistic, not knowing the thoughtful nature of their inward search; self-annihilating, not knowing the spaciousness of the Self they join; elitist, not knowing how desperately they want to share what they have seen; irrational, not realizing how much further their new world view goes toward resolving problems, how much more coherent it is with everyday experience."9

But Zen's critics seem undaunted. To them, Zen remains just one more obscure mystic way which leads into a series of fanciful delusions. Still, it is only fair to point out that Zen also cuts off other, major selfish illusions and delusions. These dysfunctions have consistently sabotaged those other salutary A-B-C attributes of our I-Me-Mine complex which can go on to create our better selves. Critics also claim Zen is radical nonsense, an attack on our hard-earned citadel of rationality. True, its assault is uncompromising. But its targets are again the old arrogant-vulnerable-indentured aspects of the I-Me-Mine complex. There, the method of Zen is to infiltrate ignorance and unreason, not to defeat rationality per se. Moreover, its usual assault does not need to be a frontal one, nor one which is ushered in with fanfare. Rather is its standard approach the silent one, acting through intuition and attrition.

Zen is patient. Indeed, as we bring out further in part II, it will be only very slowly that sitting meditation and mindful daily life practice disarticulate the I-Me-Mine. Only gradually does Zen training seem to infiltrate and whittle away at every nerve network which had trapped us inside our usual, ignorant fantasy world. One might visualize it as operating on each ignorant and deluded network using a long series of present participles, words which end in -ing. First, the training encourages a "loosening up," a process of easing. This dampens the brain's previous overdriven activities. Then, by slow erosive action, in brief quickenings, and in rare larger events, the approach becomes a process of "giving-up," of "letting go," of "opening up." In such ways does the training translate finally into processes that emerge as receptive, insightful, and transformative. These three processes enable adult brains to keep "growing up," and continuing to mature through longer intervals now called "passages." Some adult passages are no less impressive than the earlier phases we went through as children.

It does not suffice to prune only a few outwardly visible branches of the I-Me-Mine complex. Mere thoughts quickly regrow. What needs pulling out are all those deeper invisible side roots of longing and loathing. They mediate our strongest desires and aversions. They send out long covert extensions which invade—or recoil—at personal depths that we had never suspected were there. It then becomes apparent that something very curious and important is going on in Zen: its long-range training methods turn out to be remarkably selective and well-balanced. \\liat gets cut off are precisely those imaginings and emotional ties which have maladaptive overtones. Therefore, it is no calamity to surrender the counterproductive aspects of the I-Me-Mine. The outcome is someone not less human, but more humane.

Beginners start off on the wrong foot. They reason as follows: I will attain enlightenment. I'll make a conscious commitment, by willing my "own" thought process. Invariably, they keep inserting their own 7 in there (for who else can do all the willing and the striving to "gain" enlightenment?). In fact, long months and years will pass—years of submitting, enduring, "letting go," accepting, and unlearning—before the aspirant realizes two astonishing facts. First, the world is, and always has been, right here to awaken to. Second, the moments of awakening arise of themselves, when the time is ripe. When nobody is around. Nobody.

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