The Psychology of Meditation
Chogyam Trungpa

Meditation is a way of working with neurosis of ego, so in order to understand the psychology of meditation we must understand the dynamics of that neurosis. According to Buddhist psychology, the basis of ego is the tendency to solidify energy into a barrier that separates space into two entities, I and Other; the space in here and the space out there. This process is technically termed dualistic fixation. First there is the initial creation of the barrier, which is the sensing of other, and then the inference of inner or I. This is the birth of ego. We identify with what is in here and struggle to relate to what is out there. The barrier causes an imbalance between inside and outside. The struggle to redress the imbalance further solidifies the wall. The irony of the barrier creating process is that we lose track of the fact that we have created the barrier and, instead, act as if it was always there. After the initial creation of I and Other, I feels the territory outside itself, determining if it is threatening, attractive or uninteresting.
Feeling the environment is followed by impulsive action, passion, aggression or ignoring. Pulling in what is seductive, pushing away what is threatening or repelling, ignoring what is uninteresting or irritating.
But feeling and impulsive action are crude ways of defending and enhancing ego. The next response is conceptual discrimination, fitting phenomena into categories, which makes the world much more manageable and intelligible.
Finally, whole fantasy worlds are created to shield and entertain ego. Emotions are the highlights of the fantasies while discursive thoughts, images and memories sustain the story line. A story of ego's hopes and fears, victories and defeats, virtues and vices is developed. In highly neurotic people, elaborate subplots or problems then develop from the initial drama. The subplots become very complicated and compelling, often overshadowing the main drama. In psychotic people, the subplots completely overshadow the main drama.
The different stages of ego development-the initial split of I and Other, feeling, impulse, conceptualization and the various fantasy worlds-are technically referred to in the Buddhist traditions the five skandhas. From moment to moment the five skandhas are recreated in such a manner that it seems the ego drama is continuous. Clinging to the apparent continuity and solidity of ego, ceaselessly trying to maintain I and Mine, is the root of neurosis. (This effort clashes with the inevitability of change, with the ever-recurring death and birth of ego, and therefore causes suffering.)
One sees the world in terms of I and the Threat, I and the Seduction; and consequently either moves out and tries to grab hold of phenomena or holds back from them, withdrawing into a defensive posture. Such clinging creates a sense of alienation which panics us into struggling to restore the balance that has been upset. Seemingly pleasurable objects become more seductive and seemingly hostile objects become more threatening. So the more one struggles either to gain pleasure or avoid pain, the more one creates dissatisfaction. One can go so far as to lose contact with the ground, which is psychosis. Or one can stabilize in a defensive way, which is what a neurotic person does. The particular neurosis you create depends on your style of relating to the world-defensive, seductive, manipulative, encompassing or ignoring. But whatever your style, the degree to which you are neurotic depends on the extent to which you are struggling to make yourself comfortable; which is ironic, because it is the effort to make ourselves comfortable that creates the discomfort.
On the other hand, there is the possibility of breaking the chain of panic and struggle by opening to what is, by dropping the attempt continually to maintain one's security. One can define meditation as a process of letting go, of giving up conflict, not in a passive, spineless sense, but in the sense of being present yet not manipulative. So we are faced with the moment-to-moment alternative of either opening to space, of being in harmony with it, or of solidifying and fixating it.
One must be careful not to fall into the trap of superficially letting go. What one is doing in that case is trying to compensate for the discomfort of life by smoothing it over, by trying to make oneself at ease. In the case of highly neurotic persons, their awkward attempts at easing their discomfort are obvious. But in the case of spiritual techniques such covering over is harder to detect. Rather than softening reality, meditation is a process of clearly seeing it. A good example is Don Juan's approach to fear. He does not offer Carlos a technique to dilute fear. Instead he tells Carlos to live with fear, live with death, make death his companion, make fear his companion; but never succumb to them.
Excerpted from GARUDA, a 1976 publication put out by Vajradhatu Publications ©.