Into The Abyss

By: David Edwards

What lies at the heart of man? Anything? Nothing? Nothing much? Many of us believe that the human heart is a wasteland, a kind of abyss into which we might fall. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins wrote:

“The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

If we direct our focus to the heart of our “robot vehicles”, what will we find? Well what +could+ we possibly find? Just transistors, microchips, hydraulics. When we look into the eyes of our loved one and she smiles, we feel a warmth in our heart, but it is only the surge of some reproductive control centre. If we look behind her eyes, we won’t find ‘love’ in any meaningful sense of the word – we will find optical sensors, USB cables linking to central processing units. If Dawkins is to be believed, there is no beloved to be found, not really, just a patterned mass of wires that by some weird accident of nature is given to reproducing itself.

And when we consider evolution, when we consider our closest biological cousins – other mammals, primates – we can hardly bear to imagine what might lie within. Surely at the heart of man is a bloodthirsty beast, a will to power, domination and conquest. Perhaps a repressed reptilian lust for mayhem. This, after all, is the theme of innumerable novels and films – the thinnest veneer of civilisation separates us lords and ladies of the flies from our ugly underneath.

There must be horror inside rooted in a meaningless parade of lifeforms randomly reproducing and killing throughout eternity – who could bear to look deeply into such a heart? Better to put on The Simpsons.

There is, by the way, an interesting conceit contained in the last paragraph. Who are we to declare life “meaningless”? Who are we to make any kind of final judgement about the cosmos and our place within it? “Meaningless” compared to what exactly? There appear to be only two possibilities regarding the origin of the universe: either it exploded into being from nothingness, or it has always existed without beginning. As both alternatives appear to be logically impossible, a certain humility from our logical minds would appear to be demanded. Indeed this conundrum makes a nonsense of any existential despair we might feel. Despair is based on certainty – not ‘Everything +might+ be meaninglessness’, but ‘Everything +is+ meaningless’. That certainty just does not exist.

In rare moments when we are not distracted, entertained, we do indeed glimpse an oppressive emptiness inside. Taking a much-needed break from the distraction of mundane work we are surprised to find, not the expected relief and relaxation, but a void opening within. Like existential astronauts, we protect ourselves from this inner vacuum with high-tech insulation: MP4 players, iPhones, computers, DVDs, video games. And it is the thought of being consumed by this nothingness that drives us to lose ourselves in work, ambition, busyness – anything to keep us occupied.

But perhaps all is not as it seems. When it comes to physical pain we know we’re better off removing our finger from the candle’s flame – leaving it in the flame really doesn’t help. But when it comes to touching painful emotions with our minds, exactly the opposite appears to be the case. Could it in fact be that removing our attentional finger from the emotional flame is the whole problem?

A Fear Of Feathers

Cognitive behavioural therapists know that phobics are not really frightened of feathers, birds and open spaces. Well they are, but the real fear is of death. Sudden alarming experiences – a trapped bird thrashing around our kitchen as a child, crashing into windows – establish a powerful fear reaction. Later, when the memory of the incident is triggered in some way, the panic surges again. The fear is intense causing the panic-stricken to rapidly distance themselves from the trigger. As a result the anxiety of course subsides.

But this ‘solution’ comes at a high price. What phobics take away with them is the lesson that, at the time they escaped, the fear was surging and only stopped surging when they fled the scene. The subconscious message being that, if they had +not+ escaped, the fear would have continued to increase, their heart would have raced ever faster. Perhaps they would have had a heart attack. Perhaps the fear would have killed them or caused some other catastrophic event. Having learned that terrifying lesson, the sight of a bird, or even a feather, can generate intense fear for their safety, their sanity – this is the root of the phobic reaction. The fear is perceived as superhuman, non-survivable, and so phobics literally run for their lives from it.

Most of us respond in a similar way to feelings of inner emptiness. Even a glimpse of this darkness and we rush to fill it with light – pleasure, entertainment, distraction. We know that the problem has only been suppressed, not solved, but at least we can avoid it. And society encourages us in this response with a huge campaign of propaganda. Not only does it train us to assume we sinful, fallen, robot vehicles are empty inside; it insists that everything good is outside – we have to go and get it. Society does not say to us: ‘Sit still, do nothing, buy nothing, produce nothing, go nowhere, and have a wonderful time!’ The suggestion looks like madness in a consumer culture. And yet this is exactly the claim made, for example, in zazen meditation. It is the meaning behind the famous Zen proverb:

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing. Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”

The “spring”, here, is bliss. Consumer logic is turned on its head: it is +searching+ for bliss ‘out there’ that takes us away from the here and now, from ourselves, where bliss is really found.

As with phobics, we learn the lesson that there is an awful darkness, an emptiness inside, and that we can save ourselves by escaping from it. This reinforces our belief that, if we had not escaped from the cause of our distress, we might have been overwhelmed by anxiety, despair or depression.

The great cure for phobia is exposure – more precisely, exposure without running for the nearest exit! I remember a wonderful BBC documentary featuring the cognitive behavioural therapist Paul Salkovskis, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Applied Science at King’s College London. Salkovskis treated a woman who suffered from a crippling fear, not just of birds, but of feathers, caused by a traumatic childhood experience of the kind described above. Her anxiety was such that she had been virtually house-bound for years.

The solution was as simple as it was challenging. Salkovskis produced a feather in his office and urged the woman not to run away. Instead, he asked her to be aware of her feelings, to notice her increased heart rate, her fear levels. He asked her to rate her fear from 1 to 10. At first, her anxiety scored the full 10 points. After a few minutes though, crucially, her adrenaline rush subsided and the fear began to decrease – something she had never before experienced with a feather nearby.

Salkovskis suggested that she was not frightened of the feather; she was actually frightened of dying. She was afraid that her fear would become more and more intense and kill her. But as she could see, the fear did not continue rising; eventually it came back down. Indeed, as Salkovskis pointed out, she had already endured the very worst her fear could throw at her many times in her life. She had just not experienced that it would stop increasing, and then fall, because she had always run away from the problem. The real solution lay, not in escaping, but in staying put. Salkovskis moved the feather a little closer. Again the woman’s fear sky-rocketed. But again it came down.

The realisation of the harmlessness of fear – that something ‘really terrible’ would not happen – caused her phobia to vanish. In reality, the phobia was an illusion, a superstition. Like all illusions it was supremely vulnerable to the truth, to what really is. By the end of the session, the woman was calmly holding the feather.

Under The Dirt Floor

The renowned Buddhist teacher and monk, Lama Yeshe, once observed:

“You are like beggars living in a shack, ignoring your poverty. Meanwhile, just under the dirt floor, there is a treasure of immeasurable value. You just need to scrape off the dust and you will find it.”

The claim of mystics ancient and modern is that there +is+ a treasure. But where is it? It is hidden precisely within the “dirt” of sadness, boredom, fear, emptiness, the feeling that our heart is an abyss.

Like the phobics mentioned above, we feel that we know all about our inner abyss. We feel sure that escape is the answer. Tirelessly, we run from sadness, boredom, from a sense of futility, into distraction. The one escape we have never tried is to stay put, to leave our attentional finger in our emotional flame.

We know that if we do not escape from fear but stay with it and watch the rise and fall, it evaporates. So what happens when we don’t react to boredom, when we don’t leap to fill the hole with pleasure and excitement, but simply sit and watch and feel boredom? Is it something we have ever even considered? What happens when we stand up to this mighty force that has the power to propel us to the ends of the earth, to tolerate any job, any romantic partner, any dreary friend rather than be alone? What happens when we stay still and watch the sadness that would normally have us cramming the darkness with food, pleasure, drugs and booze? Does the sadness get worse? Does the boredom rise to infinity and consume us whole?

The Indian mystic Osho described the results of watching thoughts and emotions:

“It makes you aware that you need not be afraid of your inner abyss. It is beautiful, it is blissful. You have not experienced its bliss and beauty because you have never gone into it, you have always been escaping. You have not tasted of it; it is nectar, it is not poison. But how are you going to know without tasting it? You are running away from something which can become your life’s fulfilment. You are running away from something which is the only thing worth achieving. You are running away from yourself.”

Osho recommended that we watch all our emotions and thoughts in the same way:

“Whenever you feel sad, sit by the side of a tree, by the side of the river, by the side of a rock, and just relax into your sadness without any fear. The more you relax, the more you will become acquainted with the beauties of sadness. Then sadness will start changing its form: it will become a silent joy, uncaused by anybody outside you. That will not be shallow happiness, which can be taken away very easily.

“And getting deeper into your aloneness, one day you will find not only joy – joy is only midway. Happiness is very superficial, depends on others; joy is in the middle, does not depend on anyone. But going deeper you will come to the state of bliss – that’s what I call enlightenment.

“Use anything and you will come to enlightenment – but use something authentic, which is yours.”

This is a strong theme in Buddhism and also in the Western contemplative tradition. The monk Saint Symeon (949-1022) described the art of watching the emotions:

“To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination.”

Eckhart Tolle writes:

“Be present as the watcher of your mind – of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react… Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.”

Thoughts +will+ carry us away. Our minds initially react much as a wild animal does on having a rope thrown around its neck (in fact our minds have always been quite turbulent, we just didn’t notice). But we can observe rather than follow the thoughts and gently return to watching our emotions, to feeling.

And then, for example, behold! Looming vast and magnificent in the blackness of inner space: an incandescent ball of jealousy. Ignited by a couple of random, perhaps completely nonsensical, thoughts that sparked through our all too flammable mind – ‘Was she flirting with him? Did he give her his phone number?’ – we can only be amazed at its scorching intensity, as if a hole were being burned in our chests. Normally, we would fight the emotion – ‘This is ridiculous, nonsense – I’m not a child – I’ve no reason to be jealous.’ Normally, we would do everything to extinguish the fire, to smother it, just get rid of it. But now we are watching it as we would any natural phenomenon; not avoiding, not rejecting. And the pain is real – we are burning.

Surprises are revealed. As we continue watching, feeling, we notice there is pleasure hidden in the pain of jealousy (is there something here, then, that also +excites+ us? Is this what makes jealousy so maddening?) Are we feeling pain now or pleasure, or both? And slowly, over time, as we continue watching, the jealousy melts, is transformed, and we feel bliss, delight, joy.

Likewise, when we focus deeply on sadness we do not simply become more miserable. The experience of sadness +is+ intensified, illuminated, but much is gained from that.

First, our awareness of the sadness is deepened. By obvious implication, our awareness of the sadness of others is also deepened – and this is the basis of compassion, one of the key components of human happiness. We may often think about sadness and compassion, but feeling them directly, intensely, has a very different impact on our minds and hearts. As discussed, we normally rush from the experience of sadness into pleasurable distraction and a torrent of thoughts, and so we are seldom fully present with the sadness at all.

When we watch sadness, anger, boredom and fear rather than being carried away on the usual river of sad, angry, bored and fearful thoughts, we cut the energy supply driving these emotions. Watching the emotion breaks the vicious circle whereby thoughts ignite emotions, which fuel more thoughts, which generate more emotions.

Also, the act of observation communicates the powerful realisation that the observer cannot be identical with the observed. The very fact that we are observing the emotions reveals to us that we are separate from them. We are +not+ our sadness, anxiety, despair, jealousy and anger; we are watching them. They and we are therefore separate.

If this sounds obvious, recall that we in fact normally +do+ identify with our emotions. We become so utterly possessed by sadness and anger because we say and believe with total conviction, ‘I’m sad’ and ‘I’m angry.’ It makes all the difference when we come to realise instead that, ‘There is sadness’ and ‘There is anger.’ If we slowly erode our conditioning, we see that we can be watchers observing the problem. This disidentification, this subtle separation, pulls the plug on the negative emotions.

When we stop identifying with the abyss, stop reacting to it – when we stand over it and simply watch – the sadness, anger and emptiness begin to melt. But this is not all. Our society teaches us that a heart without disturbing emotions must be a barren place, like a room with no furniture. In fact a peaceful heart is full of bliss. This is the experience of all who have watched their thoughts and emotions: sadness turns to bliss, anger turns to love and compassion.

Further Reading

Osho: Awareness, St. Martin’s Press, 2001
Eckhart Tolle: The Power of Now, Hodder Mobius, 2005
B. Alan Wallace, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity, Columbia University Press, 2009