by Peter Fenner
People who have participated in the Intrinsic Freedom program enjoy its unique capacity to create an experience that is free from conflict and confusion. They also appreciate that the work is subtle. At times it is so transparent that people believe there is nothing to do. It feels as though it just happens. Afterwards, people are often at a loss to describe how they arrived at a place that tran- scends any consideration of loss or gain. Consequently, people often ask: “What exactly is it we do to create this free and spacious way of being in the world? What accounts for the effectiveness of the program?”
In fact there is a body of theory and practice that informs the creation of the Intrinsic Freedom perspective. I would like to share with you some of the guiding principles and practices that shape this work and contribute to the experience of intrinsic freedom. Besides giving you information about how we create the Intrinsic Freedom space, I hope that this article will give you some practical guidelines for creating and recreating this experience in your own lives.
The question “What is it that we do?” invites us to come up with a name for the discipline we have invented, beyond simply calling it “this work.” For the time being I have chosen the term “deconstructive contemplation.”
So what is deconstructive contemplation? It is inspired by the Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita), Middle Path (Madhyamaka), Complete Fulfillment (Dzogchen) and Contemplative (Zen) traditions of Buddhism. Deconstructive contemplation is a practice designed to dismantle the fixations that cause us pain and suffering.
The principal assumption of deconstructive contemplation is that reality is created through our beliefs. This assumption allows us to disclose the constructed nature of our experience. Finally, the assumption that reality is created through our beliefs is, itself, deconstructed-leaving “reality-as-it- is”. So, in the final analysis deconstructive contemplation achieves nothing-it is a non-event. As the Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) tradition of Buddhism says, it is a radical teaching that is openly presented as a non-teaching. However, for as long as we figure that there is something we need to do, deconstructive contemplation fits the bill as a sophisticated tool for recovering “that which we can neither gain nor lose”.
The use of the term “contemplation” points to the fact that this practice occurs most fluidly and naturally within a psychological space that is free from urgent or intense emotional reactions. It is designed for psychologically mature people who aren’t locked into heavy opinions. Contemplation in this context does not refer to a practice, such as formal meditation, which is segmented out from the rest of our activities. Thus, this work cannot be compared with methodologies such as Theravada-based insight meditation (vipasyana), or zazen.
A fixation occurs everytime we take a rigid and inflexible position about any aspect of our experience. When we are fixated, we invest mental, emotional and physical energy in defending or rejecting a particular interpretation of who we are. The fixations disclosed in this work are traced back to a core belief that something is missing in our lives. What is missing can be anything from a nice cup of tea through to enlightenment. We feel that “This isn’t it”-where IT represents our particu- lar version of how things should be. We are sure that something is happening that shouldn’t be happening, or that something that should be happening, isn’t. Either view is a fixation which throws us into emotional confusion as we struggle to gain whatever IT is. We fear not getting it, and having got it, we fear losing it. And by all counts IT will probably be derived from our concept of a state of enlightenment, i.e., a state of limitless possibilities and unending happiness.
The baseline assessment that “something is missing” is cyclically displaced by the feeling that “This is it.” For a time we validate that things are going well. We figure that we are getting it, or have got it-this is how things should be. We might even convince ourselves that we have arrived at the long sought-after goal of our spiritual endeavors. However, the belief that we have got it sets up the possibility of losing it, as we reconstruct that we don’t have enough of it, that we could use more of it. We also question if this really is IT and even if it is, whether we now want it.
The core assessments that “this is it” and “this isn’t it” spawn innumerable secondary fixations. In terms of our personal and spiritual development we spend a huge amount of time and energy constructing the interpretations that we are making progress or standing still. As these constructions shift and change we spend yet more time trying to work out whether we are stuck or mobile. We oscillate between trying harder and giving up. We determine that we do or don’t need help or find ourselves unable to decide whether to seek help, or go it alone. Sometimes we are clear and commit- ted and at other times we are confused and vague, struggling to determine whether our experiences are meaningful or meaningless, real or unreal.
Deconstructive contemplation is a procedure for gently and neatly dissolving our fixations by revealing that our everyday and professionally informed interpretations of reality are self-referencing mechanisms for deceptively validating the core fixations that “This is it” and “This isn’t it.” By disclosing the beliefs that internally validate our fixations, these fixations lose their capacity to control our lives. By revealing their core structure in real time, we discover that our fixations don’t refer to an objective, or even a subjective, reality. Ultimately we discover that our fixations aren’t fixations. We see that a fixation is merely a concept that we have superimposed on the flux of our experience. In this way deconstructive contemplation discloses the open and fluid texture of reality. As a procedure for disclosing fixed belief systems, deconstructive contemplation is loosely based on the Middle Path (Madhyamaka) tradition of Buddhism. In its traditional Indian and Tibetan settings Middle Path deconstruction systematically demolishes fixed beliefs through rigorous logical investigations that are employed in a rather mechanical way during formal sessions of meditation. Our contemporary method differs from traditional Middle Path methods in two important ways. Firstly, it operates in a way that transcends the need for formal periods of meditation. In fact, we systematically deconstruct the activity of meditation, whenever meditative activity becomes a self- justifying method for blindly conditioning beliefs in our personal worth and spiritual progress. In this regard this work is closer to the original Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) tradition. A second difference is that we focus on dismantling fixations as and when they arise rather than reactivating pre-existing fixations in the context of meditation. These differences make deconstructive contem- plation very organic and fluid.
A course usually begins by inviting people to observe their fixations. We describe these in a relatively casual and common-sense way, using language that accords with our everyday way of thinking and talking about them. This helps to transform theoretical and attractive-sounding sugges- tions into instruments for the direct disclosure of cognitive biases and emotional fixations.
For example, people will be invited to observe how they:
• draw attention to, or divert attention from, themselves. • try to intensify or dilute their experience. • dramatize or trivialize a breakdown or breakthrough. • validate or invalidate their own and other’s beliefs.
By describing the personalized discourses and feelings that accompany generic fixations we can easily track their manifestation and behavior as they are occurring. The manifestation of these, and other biases is unique to each of us. For example, what constitutes speaking up for one person may represent relative silence for another.
This particular dimension of our work is inspired by the Complete Fulfillment (Dzogchen) tradition of Buddhism in which one cultivates the non-acceptance and non-rejection of all that we can experience.
Awareness and action
We also observe how we can engage in this work half-heartedly or make hard work of the process. We can understand this phase as either the mere observation of biases or their elimination from our experience, depending on how we distinguish actions from awareness. Such biases will reflect a passive and active approach to spiritual work respectively. By observing such tendencies, and acting in terms of these observations, we move into a space where we are neither compensating for a bias, nor resisting the impulse to make a correction. In this way balance is applied to the rela- tionship between observing and correcting these biases. The result is that we neither actively inter- vene to change our thinking and behavior, nor simply remain inert observers of our biases. An awareness of these biases produces a serene and alert atmosphere that is conducive to the more rigorously deconstructive dimensions of this work. In the program, the gentle observation of biases slows down participants’ thinking and introduces a smooth pace into their physical activities. Their personalities become integrated and harmonized and they achieve a sense of emotional balance and physical well-being.
At an interpersonal level an awareness of these biases produces a delightful atmosphere in which there is a harmonious balance between privacy and sharing. People neither intrude into other’s space nor convey the message that they don’t want others to come near. People neither operate in an insensitive manner nor feel the need to tread warily.
Facilitators offer their observations on how these fixations are manifesting in participants.
While facilitators are rigorous in providing feedback to participants they do this in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor intrusive. Facilitators also function as role models as they personally implement these principles.
A feeling state
The program also sensitizes people to the somatic effects of fixations. People learn to use their bodies as instruments for detecting the presence of cognitive, emotional and behavioral biases. We become sensitive to the bodily sensations that signal we are operating from a reactive space. We begin to feel how we are physically drawn into some situations and repelled by others. As this awareness grows, feelings of attraction no longer magnetically grip our body and feelings of aver- sion repel us less and less. An uncalculated correction occurs such that we are no longer compelled to move into attractive situations nor avoid distasteful ones. In this way desire and aversion cancel each other out.
People give relatively less energy to their strategic intellect and begin to operate more from a feeling dimension. We begin to function in a way where we are neither giving in to nor resisting our desires. We move into a highly responsive feeling state which is empty of coarse feelings. Our capacity to experience our own and others’ energy increases as specific feelings dissolve into a heightened state of sensitivity.
In general terms, deconstructive contemplation moves gently through two relatively transparent phases.
Deconstruction begins by disclosing the “stories” that internally validate our beliefs at any point in time. The stories within which our beliefs are embedded are uncovered as self-referencing systems of meaning that render our assessments true and factual to us. These stories contain an internal logic and coherence in just the same way that the interpretation we are developing here has its own local- ized rationality. These self-referring stories derive their plausibility from various forms of evidence. Typically they draw on memories, causal explanations and authoritative sources, such as friends, mentors and psycho-spiritual literature. For example, if we are locked inside a belief that we need to engage in a certain spiritual practice (such as meditation), this belief will be linked to judgments that it has helped us in the past, anecdotal support from a network of practitioners and declarative claims in texts that advocate our chosen methodology.
Deconstructive contemplation uncovers these explanations and allows us to see that the validity of our core assessments depends on the interpretation (or story) within which they are embedded. We see that under a different interpretation the core assessment would be false or indeterminate. For example, the belief that we need to engage in a spiritual practice is rendered invalid when held in conjunction with a belief that spiritual activity merely conditions, and perpetuates a sense of incom- pleteness.
The process of disclosing the local or contextual validity of our beliefs doesn’t involve heavy intellectual analysis of how we think and feel. Instead it is a function of creating a clear disclosive space that allows personal and social discourses to be naturally revealed. In the course facilitators work directly with participants to disclose what is already there-through simple exercises, group dialogues and one-on-one conversations. Such proactive disclosure is another feature that distin- guishes this work from traditional Buddhist insight meditation.
In the course we don’t need to unravel these stories in a laborious way. We use participants’ personal beliefs to disclose generic constructs that everyone can relate to. Participants then process their own psychological and spiritual beliefs in between group meetings. This occurs naturally as a result of the intentionality and energy that is created during group meetings.
People begin to recognize that any opinion or viewpoint that they are inclined to defend or reject signifies a fixation. They become sensitive to the shifts in energy that are triggered when their beliefs and interpretations are supported or challenged by their present experience. They become aware of the feelings of comfort and confidence that arise when they judge that they are on-track, and of feelings of frustration, threat and disappointment that occur when they think that something is wrong or “shouldn’t be happening.” People begin to appreciate that these feelings and emotions are indicators of obvious or subtle forms of fixation. This awareness produces a natural adjustment so that people no longer feel compelled to vigorously defend their beliefs. Beliefs are seen as the product of prior experiences or conditions, and people therefore are content to let their beliefs and opinions arise as thought forms that don’t need to be cultivated or suppressed. No special instruction or directive is needed to produce a less defensive or confrontational relationship with our own and others’ beliefs. A more mellow and spacious mood emerges as a natural consequence of seeing the interdependent relationships within our beliefs and between our beliefs and feelings. Throughout this process we focus on disclosing and dismantling fixations as they manifest.
Obvious and transparent beliefs
In the initial stages of this work the extent of deconstruction that occurs matches people’s willingness to share the beliefs they access at an obvious and familiar level. They become aware of beliefs that have been cultivated through their own unique exposure to culture and education. People tune in to their own personal stories about psychological and spiritual development. They speak as though they “know” where they are and where they would like to be. They also tend to have reason- ably firm ideas about how to get there. Within a course structure, people quickly appreciate that their beliefs can have their origins in traditions, teachers, books, etc. They also appreciate that there are alternative and equally authoritative discourses, some of which directly contradict their own. Through sharing in a psychological space that neither supports nor rejects any particular belief system, people begin to see through their beliefs in the sense that they no longer need to defend or reject what they are thinking. People become present to their thoughts in a simple and uncomplicated way.
Behind our acquired belief systems are structures that shape our experience of ourselves and of the world at a more foundational level. These structures shape the very landscape of our experience, yet their closeness and familiarity makes them invisible. Our capacity to observe them is also ob- scured by the density and urgency of our thinking, and the complexity of our interpersonal activities. However, once people can appreciate their acquired beliefs without needing to apologize for them or take them seriously, they automatically begin to observe their more transparent belief structures. The first structures to emerge often reflect people’s need to know what is happening. They begin to see how they construct the experience of progressing towards a goal by creating a begin- ning, middle, and an end. The course becomes a microcosmic expression of people’s need to be able to track their progress towards some privately designed goal. People can experience moods of frustration and expectation that accompany the “path of waiting”. They experience how the “path of waiting” is built on the belief that “IT isn’t happening now” and see how this motivates them to discover what they need to do to make IT happen. (See the dialogue “Should I talk, or stay silent” in this issue for further explanation of the phenomenon of “waiting”.) Participants experience how waiting is displaced by “arriving”, i.e., getting IT, and how arriving is displaced in turn by more waiting as people reconstruct that they have lost IT. They also experience the confusion and frustra- tion of not knowing what it is that would make them content.
People see how they cycle between experiences of success and failure as they judge their progress, or lack of progress, against a quite complex set of beliefs about what they have done, whether their past training is a help or hindrance, what there is to “get”, whether they are getting it, if there is in fact anything to get, who is to judge success and failure-themselves, a facilitator, other participants, etc. The disclosure of these structures is not specifically intellectual. People experience these structures together with the moods and emotions that accompany them. They experience the feelings of frustration and disappointment that are fused with the assessment that they have failed. They get high on the feelings of excitement and elation that accompany a judgment of success. In the program, these experiences occur just as they do in other situations. However, rather than simply enjoying or enduring these feelings, people begin to clearly see how they are conditioned by the stories they weave about what should and shouldn’t be happening to them.
Many other transparent structures are revealed through this work including the construction of authorities, or sources of knowledge, in the form of people and traditions, and the creation of depen- dency relationships with authorities. By revealing the personal and societal discourses that support these structures, people begin to operate outside an identity of needing or giving help. As people disclose and deconstruct these structures they encounter their identity at a more basic or existential level.
The juxtaposition of opposite beliefs
Our usual pattern is to alternate between conflicting fixations. We oscillate between thinking that we need help at one point, and don’t need it at another. We get locked into perservering, striving to determine the “right” perspective, which then gives way to giving up. We oscillate continually between breakdowns and breakthroughs. However, when we see that these are responses to the conflicting constructions that “this isn’t it” and “this is it”, the oscillations flatten out and we move into a space where these constructs lose their capacity to describe an objective or subjective reality. For example, when we see ourselves move through a number of cycles of waiting for some result and then arriving, with no apparent change in terms of real movement towards a solid goal, we see how our concepts and beliefs create the phenomena of progress and lack of progress against a highly fluid and vaporous concept of what it is that we want.
We see how we can interpret our experience differently, even without changing anything about our thinking, or feelings, or within our physical circumstances. For example, people simultaneously experience the possibilities that they are participating and not participating. We see that whether we are participating or not is purely a matter of what we think we are doing at any point in time. The capacity for two opposite interpretations to equally describe where we are, renders such assessments meaningless. In fact, the juxtaposition of these perceptions deconstructs the beliefs that we are either “doing it” or “not doing it”. This same type of insight occurs around “getting it” and “not getting it”, making and not making progress, needing and not needing help, being confused and being clear. Furthermore, to the extent that the course is construed as a vehicle for gaining spiritual insight or liberation, we see that there is no difference between reality and illusion, wisdom and ignorance, bondage and liberation. At this point the need to make such distinctions simply doesn’t compute. As the interdependence and groundlessness of people’s fixed beliefs are revealed, fixations begin to dissolve naturally. This produces moments of clarity and openness. The energy deployed in constructing bondage and liberation is freed into a state that transcends bias and limitation. As this work evolves, the process of releasing fixations becomes more natural and effortless. The heaviness and density of people’s conflicting emotions thin out, producing greater spaciousness and ease. Through this process people can experience a delightful space that is free from reactive emotions and habitual interpretations. They transcend any preoccupation with “getting it” or “losing it”. And in saying this, I acknowledge that you might think that this is an experience worth gaining or avoiding!!
Deconstructing the process
In the program we also deconstruct the program itself. We do this by disclosing the beliefs that validate and invalidate people’s ongoing participation in this work. Finally, we deconstruct the process of deconstructive contemplation because people can latch on to this as a new method for fixing their lives. Through participating in this work people can easily think that they are engaged in a very unique process. They can’t really compare the experience with anything else they have done. In other words, they construct deconstruction as a distinctive event. For example, people may think that they have actually deconstructed various psychological and spiritual fixations. When this occurs we ask participants what this “deconstructive contemplation” is, that they think has been occuring. They might answer that it is a refined process for uncovering transparent beliefs that have structured their lives, and then dismantling these so that they no longer grip them. If this begins to occur we observe how a phenomenon called “deconstruction” can be constructed, just as we have done in this paper. People see how they can make what is otherwise a conversation, into a profound or significant event. Of course, in disclosing this construction, we also correct any tendency for participants to slide into an opposite fixation which has them construct this work as trivial or even non-existent.
This talk has been extracted from Peter’s presentation at the International Association for Spiritual Psychiatry, in Paris, April 1995