I have long been interested in meditation, and I practiced it on and off for many years when I was a young man. Meditation held me together through my neurotic shenanigans, until depth psychology crossed my path and cleaned out the worst of my inner discombobulations. I used to be pretty good, too, at standing on my head, though that was mostly a salute to my ego.
The practice of meditation, like the understanding of depth psychology, is a royal road to self-discovery. Meditation obviously has the power to promote wellbeing. It was shown in a Harvard University study to change brain regions linked to memory, a sense of self, and regulation of emotions. As with depth psychology, meditation penetrates the unconscious mind in search of self-knowledge that makes us stronger and wiser.
When meditating successfully, we’re overriding inner weakness. The practice requires decisiveness and resolve: We have to decide to do it, then actually do it. With meditation, we practice the power of intention. The intention is not just to meditate but to feel inner harmony and strength. We’re trying to access the power to calm our mind. In this process, we make the effort to block out random thoughts and considerations or we let them pass through our mind without engaging with them. Our intention is to go inward, create what degree of inner quiet we can, and experience from a witnessing position whatever arises.
Both depth psychology and meditation are effective in helping us to regulate our mind and emotions. Absent inner guidance or oversight, our mind and imagination can jitter around aimlessly, spewing out random reflections and speculations. At such times, our mind and imagination can operate as facilitators or enablers of inner conflict. An unregulated mind frequently produces thoughts and feelings that are negative, painful, deceptive, and self-defeating. With meditation, we’re reaching inward to access the power to keep negative or random thoughts and emotions at bay and to connect with our essential nature. With depth psychology, we’re also looking to connect with our essential nature, mainly by recognizing the inner conflict and other dynamics that block us from being at our best. The intention with both systems is to empower our intelligence, enabling us to recognize primitive, unconscious operations and to exert positive influence upon them.
Depth psychology enables us to illuminate, mentally and emotionally, the specific psychological dynamics involved in mental and emotional disharmony. Those who are unable or unwilling to meditate can, as an alternative, approach their inner life through this psychological knowledge, although this system also requires the courage to topple the inner status quo. In this psychological process, we acquire strength and wisdom by exposing the specific dynamics of inner conflict that have maintained our suffering.
Depth psychology does this, in one important way, by helping us to recognize and understand, both intellectually and emotionally, a primary weakness called inner passivity. This mostly unconscious weakness (read about it here, here, and here) blocks us from bringing our best possibilities and intentions to life’s daily challenges.
It is this weakness—inner passivity—that meditation, at its best, is able to override, at least temporarily. A person who’s meditating successfully bypasses inner passivity and the disconnect it creates from one’s authentic self. The meditator’s single-minded focus (Zen Buddhists call this “one-pointedness of mind”) regulates the mind and thereby calms it. This practice produces the experience of mental and emotional strength, the opposite of the sense of weakness that inner passivity induces.
Meditation does not typically identify inner passivity in a clinical sense. Meditation can override inner passivity in the moment, but it doesn’t offer its practitioners the specific psychological knowledge that illuminates the clinical structure of inner passivity. Meditators would benefit more, I believe, if they possessed this psychological understanding of the existence and dynamics of inner passivity. The clinical understanding helps greatly to undermine the psychological structure of this emotional weakness, which then enables us to break our unconscious identification with it.
Depth psychology identifies the aspects of our psyche in which inner passivity thrives. I approach inner passivity and try to expose it through psychological dynamics such as emotional attachments, inner conflict, instinctive defensiveness, psychological defenses, difficulty supporting oneself emotionally, fear of change, identification with victims, inability to sublimate, perverse and bittersweet satisfaction in varieties of displeasure, self-criticism and self-abandonment, and guilt and shame. The method involves a learning process, the study of our inner weakness, that empowers our intelligence to lead us away from this inner weakness and its accompanying suffering.
Inner passivity is centered in our unconscious ego, home to a delicate, fragile self-image. The more that inner passivity circulates in our psyche, the more we’re likely to be belittled, mocked, and abused by our inner critic. At its worst, inner passivity is an instigator of violence, war, and criminality. Inner passivity induces us to believe that we’re being held back, victimized, or defeated by circumstances or powers—including our own lack of purpose or vision—that we can feel powerless to overcome.
Like depth psychology, meditation does recognize the unconscious mind or psyche, and it identifies much of our suffering as a product of unconscious forces. Meditation based on Buddhist principles recognizes “the forces of the kilesas,” which are torments of the mind. Included among them are sensual indulgence, discontent, cravings, sloth, fear, doubt, conceit, ingratitude, and malice. Depth psychology, in its more detailed approach, regards these unhealthy torments as symptoms of inner conflict. The kilesas are neurotic byproducts of deep inner conflict involving unresolved emotional attachments to refusal, deprivation, helplessness, control, rejection, criticism, and abandonment. Depth psychology zeroes in on exactly how we unwittingly participate in, indulge in, and resonate with these negative emotions. This deep knowledge is able to liberate us from such negativity.
As depth psychology teaches, an individual doesn’t have to actually be refused, controlled, and so on to get triggered and begin to experience these negative emotions. The individual experiences the emotions and their accompanying misery just by imagining being refused, controlled, etc. Or this person will unwittingly misinterpret a situation in order to generate feelings of being refused, controlled, etc. It’s amazing how quick are to produce these negative impressions and emotions. Of course, we don’t acknowledge doing this. We cover up our participation in generating such misery with denial, willful ignorance, and a variety of psychological defenses. (Here’s information on how this occurs.)
Meditative approaches to self-development speak of the illusions we perpetuate, while depth psychology gets into the nitty-gritty of what illusions are and how they arise. Depth psychology sees illusions as forms of self-deception, as resistance, denial, and psychological defenses. Consider a person who frequently feels emotionally drained and energetically depleted. Physical and medical examinations have been unable to account for this individual’s plight. He’s likely entangled emotionally in a sense of weakness involving feelings of being overwhelmed by life’s challenges, as well as by a lack of purpose and a futile sense of spinning his wheels. Inner passivity, a prime component of inner conflict, is likely involved, operating as a subtle emotional attachment and identification. This person has no idea of his identification with this specific weakness. Meditation, while it would temporarily override this passivity, wouldn’t necessarily provide him with the deeper insight that exposes and overcomes this emotional attachment.
This person’s unconscious psychological defense, presented to the inner critic which accuses the person of harboring and indulging inner weakness, might go like this: “I’m not embellishing emotionally upon a sense of inner weakness and a passive outlook on life. I’m not looking to suffer in the throes of inner conflict. Look, I’m feeling drained with life, with my job, and I hate this feeling. I want out. I hate feeling drained and depleted.” The individual offers up this defense to the inner critic. This defense can “work” at getting the inner critic to back off, at least temporarily, as long as the individual buys into his illusions (his deceptive defenses) and as long as he suffers sufficiently with painful feelings of being drained, depleted, and depressed.
Even one’s interest in meditating can be used as a psychological defense. The unconscious defense claims, “I’m not embellishing feelings of inner weakness and a passive outlook on life. I’m not indulging in passivity. I’m going to start meditating, thereby proving how determined I am to feel stronger and better!” A person employing such a defense is likely to produce only half-hearted and short-lived attempts at meditation.
Both fear and resistance stand in the way of inner progress. Meditators bravely face the sense of emptiness or nothingness encountered in their practice. Depth psychology requires us to face a related fear, namely our resistance to relinquishing the inner status quo in order to bring about psychological renewal. Both systems help us to break free of limited identifications, such as with race, nation, status, possessions, mind, body, and sexuality. The impressions both systems produce of being stripped emotionally of all identifications are typically feared and avoided. The depth psychology I practice strips us of repressed emotional identifications involving feelings of helplessness, self-alienation, unworthiness, guilt, and shame. People cling to such painful identifications, in part, out of fear of losing their “precious” sense of who they are.
Meditators recognize the limitations of the ego (another common identification), as do people engaged in depth psychology. Depth psychology strives in particular to help us recognize the unconscious subordinate ego, the seat of inner passivity, and to help us overcome our identification with it. In both systems, people endeavor to connect with their authentic self. Advocates for meditation say the practice can lead eventually beyond the self, to realization of union with a spiritual source, while the depth psychology I practice, careful to preserve its secular roots, cedes the spiritual realm to others.
Meditating need not feel like a struggle. Ideally, the practice involves waiting patiently for whatever experience arises. Struggling to concentrate and focus can produce a persistent helpless sensation. Just as one relaxes into meditation, this is also the ideal approach with depth psychology. We don’t want to be struggling mentally to understand the psychological knowledge. It’s knowledge that can easily baffle the mind. It’s best assimilated through the holistic intelligence of mind, feelings, body, and intuition. We expose ourselves to the knowledge and trust this intelligence to assimilate it. Over time, as we maintain this intention and practice, our intelligence produces vital insights, like software upgrades that flow into our computer.
Whether meditating or studying depth psychology, we strive to recognize inner weakness. As one example, difficulty in meditating can be caused by inner passivity. Meditators can become aware of inner passivity in those moments to determine if it’s preventing them from bringing forth their best intention and effort. Recognizing this passivity is essential to overcoming it.
Meditation and depth psychology agree: We can tame our negative emotions, and the reward for doing so is immense. In our personal realm, we’re either creators of a laudable life or we’re brokers of a sorry fate. We’re primary agents of what inner peace we experience, and we’re co-creators with life as to how generous, loving, and fulfilled we become. What matters is that we discover this and proceed accordingly. Certainly, the two, meditation and depth psychology, can work together effectively.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.