This is the second installment in the Modern Spirituality series. Please click here to read part one, What is stress & how do we work with it?
What is a personality program?
A personality program is a particular style of ego. The ego is a self-referencing pattern that seeks to redistribute the energy dispersed by the stress response towards the fruition of ego’s agenda. Personality programs are the ways in which the ego accomplishes this aim. In short, they are subtle psychological behaviors.
The stress response was originally intended to overcome “real physical threats.” Neurotic stress is a reaction to a psychological threat, and therefore has no need to increase the amount of energy available to the quads and hamstrings. The personality is characterized by the theme or the manner in which that energy is deployed.
These styles can be divided into two categories, introverted and extroverted. Included in the introverted approach is depression and anxiety, and under the extroverted category we find rage, addiction, and narcissism. The introverted and the extroverted poles are not opposed to one another. No one is limited to a single approach. These themes represent a spectrum of personality that everyone can identify with on some level.
The extroverted personality is an extension of the energy associated with the introverted personality. And the introverted personality is the internalization of the energy associated with the extroverted principle. For example, rage is the expression or the pressing out of the aggression internalized by depression. There is a thread of continuity connecting depression and narcissism, and along this thread the personalities are refined through an evolutionary process.
Once again, this is all grounded in basic intelligence. We have, written in our anatomy, a litany of behaviors that are animated by the stress response. These behaviors range from running to biting, but can be generally classified as fight or flight. The process of refinement basically consists of extracting the themes of fight and flight, and adapting them for the psychological world. The first adaptation is from fight and flight to extroversion and introversion.
From there, we further chisel out these themes through a process of trial and error. The process of refinement is guided by one simple maxim: What works? If the behavior or the theme is capable of managing the threat or better yet, protecting the ego’s ignore-ance, it will be repeated. In this way these personalities are formed.
What exactly is the threat?
As we have already discussed, the threat is a challenge to ego’s psycho-stasis or stability. Earlier we talked about this threat in terms of the co-dependent relationship through which ‘I’ acquires some sense of direction and value. However, now we are seeking to develop a healthy relationship with stress and move beyond the conditions that spawn neurosis. Trying to catalog every potential stressor would be a daunting, if not an impossible task. Anything has the capacity to trigger psychological stress. If we hope to develop a practical approach towards neurotic stress, we need to look beyond the details and identify the basic dynamic.
When psychological stress is triggered, the value, purpose, and/or legitimacy of ‘I’ has been called into question. By inserting itself as the common denominator in every interaction, this deceptively complex thought has situated itself at the center of a self-created psychological empire. The density of its gravitational center reaches critical mass as it consumes every experience by transforming it into what we think about it or our version of reality.
We find ourselves trapped in a cycle, because ‘I’ is incapable of referencing anything other than itself. At this point we reach the event horizon, the point of no return. The limitations imposed by the conscious mind represent the borders of ego’s empire. ‘I’ cannot see the infinite number of possibilities that lie beyond its version of any given situation. It reduces the immeasurable potential embedded in every moment down to one of two possible outcomes: either ‘I’ gets what it wants or it does not.
We are stuck in our heads. So a threat is anything that challenges the suggested primacy of the thinking brain. It is anything that reminds us that we have a body.
The migration from body to brain.
Ego is an empire of the imagination.
It is the organization of the conscious mind around the notion of ‘I,’ which is defined by the lingering memory of the threat that set this cycle in motion. It is not a conscious memory, but the active refusal to acknowledge vulnerability. This blind-spot is the foundation of our psychological world, and we protect it at all costs. That is why entertainment or busy-ness is such a valuable commodity, and why bad attention is better than no attention at all. Not looking at its blind-spot is the ego’s primary concern, because without the blind-spot there would be no ego. We create the illusion of control as a detour or side show to divert our attention away from the blind-spot.
In order to manage this vulnerability, a host of expectations or rules were generated. These rules—how things should and should not be—create the illusion of control. Basic insecurity is the echo of trauma. It is the lingering thought in the back of our mind that remembers when we were breached. There are two ways of looking at this breach.
The first approach is connected with basic sanity. It sees the breach as a soft spot, rather than a blind-spot. It is a portal connecting the conscious mind with the ground of being. It is the gateway to the garden. The second interpretation says it was a breach of trust and security. This view is the interpretation that has been tainted by the central filter, ‘I.’ From the ego’s point of view, the breach is a blind-spot, a liability. It sees any experience that does not reinforce our self-image as evidence that life is harsh and cannot be trusted.
This neurotic interpretation creates a type of panic and paranoia. It is slightly different than the pessimistic rationale acquired in the first round of personality refinement. Here the ego saw itself naked or vulnerable and became embarrassed. This is the installation of the belief in our own insufficiency—“I am not enough”: I am not fast enough, big enough, smart enough, pretty enough, I am too fat or I am too skinny.
So, it isn’t that life cannot be trusted, but that I cannot be trusted. I am certain of my failure. This is connected with depression or basic shame, the original adaptation of the flight mechanism. The subsequent panic and paranoia is a further adaptation to the flight mechanism. It says, “I know that I am not big enough to handle life. So, hurry up and close all the doors!” This is the basic approach of anxiety.
So, what is anxiety?
Simply put anxiety is a way of using the energy deposited into our system by the stress response to remove the threat. On a psychological level the threat is anything that undermines ego’s psychological empire by resurrecting the body. So, anxiety is a psychological mechanism used to suppress the body. It may be a debilitating cycle or a short lived intervention, but in both cases its aim is a paralysis of the body. Anxiety is the ego’s venom.
How does anxiety induce physical paralysis?
It is hard to describe anxiety without talking about its methodology. After all, it is a technique. As anxiety separates itself from depression, it develops two unique symptoms or strategies. The first is “Hurry up!” It is a sense of panic or urgency. The second is “Close all the doors!” This is a heightened level of paranoia. These two qualities do not function independent of one another, but play off of each other to increase the threat level. The higher the threat level, the more we are on the lookout. The more we are canvassing the area for potential threats, the less likely we are to remember the threat we are trying to forget.
The first stage of anxiety is racing thoughts and irrational self-centeredness. At this stage there is very little rhyme and reason. Life appears to be happening to me. This is often times described as a lack of attention or an inability to focus. Our thoughts are everywhere as they try to evaluate every possible threat. Thought begins to spin out of control, and our breath becomes shallow and rapid, because thought and the breath are intricately connected to one another. This can lead to a severe panic attack.
Next, the sense of urgency suggests that there isn’t time to think things through, so very irrational plots are uncovered as the ego seeks to explain how the worst case scenario will come to fruition. This is often described as impending doom or a type of inescapable dread. We are overwhelmed by worry and in some cases terror.
Finally, feeling overrun, we just shut down. This is the installation of physical tension. Often times, this is described as intense irritability. Any and all sensory input is seen as invasive. Chronic anxiety that leads to intense levels of physical tension can lead to severe physical problems with posture, alignment, joint pain, and migraines. The shutting down of the body is the final solution. It can be a small amount of tension, or nausea, dizziness, and possibly even fainting.
Everything, even our paranoia, is a derivative of truth. Therefore, our plots are projected onto objective realities: a sub-conscious memory, sight, sound, smell, taste, or a feeling. So, every possible threat has its roots in reality, which is made known through the six senses (the objective functions of the brain and the five gates of sensory input). The six senses are associated with the soma. As a result, the energy distributed by the stress response is deployed in the form of physical and conceptual tension. This closes the six doors to our psychological world. The body is our blind-spot.
What exactly is meant by the body?
When referring to the body, I do not mean our image of the body. Our image is nothing more than what we think about the body. Rather, I am pointing towards the quality of being or the direct experience of the body. Presence. Here we find that the soma does not conform to our standard representation of the body. From an experiential point of view, the body is more a verb than it is a noun. The wisdom of the universe comes to fruition in the body.
The popular idea that the unconscious is some dark, dank, cesspool of stupid urges couldn’t be further from the truth. The body or the soma—including the objective functions of the brain, but not the implied reality of the pre-frontal cortex—is synonymous with the unconscious mind.
In episode five, Luke Skywalker approaches Dagobah, the planet where his soon to be teacher, Jedi Grand Master Yoda, was in exile. As he prepares to enter Dagobah’s atmosphere he tells his droid, R2D2, “There it is, R2, Dagobah. I’m not picking up any cities or technology. Massive life-form readings, though. There’s something alive down there.” So it is with the body. It is vibrant, awake, but un-formed. The wisdom of the body is too ancient to be sophisticated. It is primal or spontaneous. “There are no cities,” or in this case, rules. The body has a language of its own.
What language does the body speak?
The psychological world is built with signs or self-referencing ideas. The body speaks on a physiological or instinctual level. The transmutation of this energy into a living situation is facilitated by symbolism. The most fundamental form of symbolism is what Jung referred to as the archetype. An archetype is the creative medium through which the unconscious or unformed mind shares itself with the conscious world of time and space. The archetype does not refer to itself. The emphasis is not placed on the image or the pattern, but the principal form of energy, or instinct, that the motif represents. A submission to these self-existing patterns or mandalas constitutes the spiritual journey. The journey itself is a motif symbolizing the embodiment of the human life cycle.
As I have stated time and time again, everything arises from basic sanity. Insanity is nothing more than sanity misunderstood. The process of misunderstanding is a cycle of inbred thinking or thinking about thought that is triggered by the installation of the word ‘I.’ Devoid of any symbolic value, this simple word misplaces the vitality of direct experience. The first thought is sane. Then, we think about that thought. Then, we think about what we thought about that thought. This keeps going until we are hundreds of thoughts removed from the present moment.
As a result, we feel lifeless. Depression, anxiety, rage, addiction and narcissism are attempts to manage this situation. We want to feel alive, and the negative emotions try to recapture that feeling. Unfortunately, they are misguided. They try to move out. Even the introverted tendencies have an obsession with the material world, as it is the field of battle, regardless of whether you intend to run or fight.
The spiritual path and the practice of meditation is an invitation to change directions. Rather than continuing to try to organize the world by stressing out over your in ability to “settle down,” just surrender. Give up trying to calm your self down. Return to the somatic posture of rest. Relax into where you are. It does not matter how ridiculous or irrational your anxiety is. In fact, it doesn’t matter if it is perfectly logical.
This is not about tidying up your point of view, nor is it about not thinking. It is about freedom from thought. You can discontinue the obsessive tendency to connect objects in your environment with the worse possible outcome by directing your awareness to the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose. When the tendency to think about your thought re-emerges, simply re-direct your awareness back to the simplicity of the breath at the tip of the nose. There is no need to think about not thinking or how you think too much. If you catch yourself beating yourself up, you do not have to beat yourself up for beating yourself up! Simply return to the openness and precision of the breath at the tip of the nose. If you do this a thousand times in twenty minutes that is 20 minutes well spent.
Most of our lives are spent turning away from our life. On the cushion we are encouraged to turn into our experience, no matter how scary it might be. Rather than identifying anxiety as a problem to be solved, the practice sees it as a portal to be entered. The negative emotions are not obstacles, they are the path.
We take physical tension as the object of meditation. It is the soft-spot, just frozen. Instead of turning away we hold it in our gaze. This gaze is vast and brave. Instead of fixating on the shiny orb of energy, like a new car driving down the street, it recognizes the space surrounding the sensation as well. The space is vast enough to accommodate a problem. We are capable of being uncomfortable. As we rest in this space what we think about ourselves begins to pour into the undifferentiated ground of being. This is the experience of individuation.
Our true life is a journey that takes the unborn mind as the center of the universe. This self-existing center gives rise to a path of un-doing that connects our mis-identification with the periphery of life to the basic quality of being our hearts crave. On this path there are no obstacles, only portals, and every gate leads us back to the center. The path is like a network of worm holes that reveals every point in time and space, even stress and anxiety, as the center of the universe.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta