Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Koan : My form of Self Expression .

From Praying Our Experiences
by Joseph F. Schmidt, Published by Saint Mary's Press, Christian Brother's Publications; Winona, Minnesota; www.smp.org . © 2000

Chapter 3, page 27
Introspection:Narcissism and the Limited Ego

IN THE SEARCH OF OUR EXPERIENCES, in the unfolding of memories to learn of our weaknesses and giftedness, are we not in danger of focusing on ourselves in a narcissistic way ? Are we not in the further danger of rationalizing and manipulating our experiences so they tell us what we want to hear ?
These dangers are, of course, present; but they are dangers on the right road. We must move with some caution but not turn back.
How can we, in this unfolding of experiences, avoid the dangers of narcissistic daydreaming on the one hand and rationalizing or even denying our memories on the other ? When egoism and rationalization are already our primary approaches in life, these dangers are quite real – it becomes difficult to avoid narcissism in anything we do, even in prayer. But if our life is being lived with reverence and purity of heart, then reflecting on our experiences will be steeped in this same reverence and purity . The life-stance with which we approach reflection, rather than the reflection itself, is crucial .
In this regard we may remember being warned against loving ourselves, lest we fall into a form of selfishness. Now we have come to realize that loving ourselves is not at all selfish and that if we do not love ourselves we are seriously weakened in our human and spiritual growth. Loving ourselves is important in our full development and is the foundation of our love of others .
In the same way, seeing reflection on our personal history as an obstacle to raising our mind and heart to God is a myopic view . Authentic reflection on life, like authentic love of self, is not the problem but part of the solution .
The very exercise of open and honest reflection will, in fact, help us to discern the extent to which selfishness and rationalization control our life-stance . It is a clue that we are indulging in unhealthy introspection when we find our ego is the source of energy and our small world is closing in on us . We then find ourselves judging the memory of our experiences in terms of our ego expectations and hopes, and events of our life are labeled good or bad according to our own standards or those imposed on us. We find ourselves congratulating or reprimanding ourselves depending on whether we have appeared wise or foolish, powerful or weak, clever or obtuse, good or bad. Our reflections are not so much on what our experiences are saying to us as on what we assess to be their value in enhancing our stature as successful persons or in crushing us as failures .
Narcissism makes our ego the center of our world and leads us away from honesty with ourselves. Narcissism prevents us from being receptive to the truth of our experiences . We close in on ourselves, not because reflection is dangerous, but because our stance is one of egocentrism . When we find ourselves not listening to our total experience but excluding part of it, or evaluating it according to our own expectations, then we can begin to suspect a narcissistic stance . When we dissect rather than receive, when we make our reflections ethical considerations of we should be rather than faith-awareness of what is, or when wemanipulate our reflections by refusing to enter certain areas of our life, even areas of religious piety and devotion, then to that extent we have placed conditions on our finding God's word in our experiences .
We may also stifle the voice of our experience by controlling our memory and feelings with a refined rationalism . We rein in our imagination and muzzle our feelings . Can anything good come out of Nazareth? we ask, and we do not go to see . Our rational and analytic thought process becomes a barrier and leaves no crack for the unexpected inspiration or the surprise awareness . We have domesticated God, and our experiences cannot speak truth to us.
In this way we may be like the Pharisees who imposed their rationalism, their egos, and their Law on their experience of Jesus . Jesus' words of forgiveness and acts of healing were not seen as manifestations of God's power because Jesus' acts did not square with the Pharisees' analytic preconceptions:
  • If he were the Messiah, he would know what kind of woman she is who is washing his feet.
  • The Messiah would not do such and so because we know what the Saviour will and will not do .

The natural feelings of sympathy and admiration that the Pharisees must have had for Jesus were stifled by their preconceptions . They left no room for the unexpected in their experience, and so an awareness of God could not enter .

The Eastern mystical tradition is perhaps more conscious of this difficulty with preconceptions than is the Western popular spirituality. In some forms of Eastern discipline, in order to open the disciple's mind to the nonrational and to the unexpected, the religious master presents the spiritual novice with a KOAN as the focus for meditation . The koan is a statement or question that makes no sense . It usually includes elements that offer no coherent or reasonable basis from shich an analysis can be made . The classic koan “ What is the sound of one hand clapping ? “ contains elements that are themselves in contradiction, and so no reasonable answer by analysis is possible . This is the point. In meditation on the koan, the novice, perhaps after months or years, comes to an awareness that rational analysis will not do; the answer, if there be an answer, must come from beyond rationality and analysis, which is to say, from beyond the ego .

The understanding of the koan does not come from rationalizing or manipulation the data but emerges in the ego's act of yielding to helplessness. Therefore, it is not a matter of rationally working at the koan that brings awareness. Rather, being in faith with the koan leads to personal awareness and transformation .

In a similar way, we might say that many of our experiences are themselves koans . They contain elements that we see as contradictory and as making no sense : the death of a beloved child, failure in an area of special competence, a serious injury, falling in love . We ask ourselves for an answer or a meaning . We analyze and reason, but no understanding is forthcoming . Again, that is the point .

It is not by rational analysis or by the manipulation of the data of our experience that the answer will come but by an egoless reflection in which we open ourselves to a source of power beyond ourselves . It is not by rationally working at the memory of our experiences that we gain awareness; rather, by being in faith with our experiences, we grow to a sense of our finiteness and giftedness, and therefore to a sense of God's power and care . Reflecting on our experiences in a reverent way, far from being narcissistic, opens us to the source of life on the other side of our limited rational ego .

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