Friday, July 11, 2008

The Machine

"I'm just a cog in the machine!" I've protested after a lousy day of work. Its a modern complaint and words like 'dehumanize' and 'alienation' were invented to express being treated like a machine. The protest comes as I feel edges being shaved off my unique, organically shaped persona so that it fits into the small square space that the world sometimes gives me.

I can also feel dehumanized when I go too long without feeling alive. Or, when I try performing for someone else's expectations. Or, I act in the grip of a compulsion without apparent volition. Again, the feeling is of taking complex behavior and simplifying it and repeating it like a machine does--only in this case its me thats allowing it!

So why is it that I get so much comfort from all the machine metaphors in Eknath Easwaran's book "Meditation". Its a lovely little treatise full of wisdom about how to grow in spirit. Easwaran taught at Berkeley for many years. He is full of cute stories of his American students and how to meditate and live a more spiritual life.

He treats the mind as if it is car being driven by unruly desires. Or a coat that you put on or take off. He has no compunction in thinking of a part of himself that many of us view as our self, our mind and emotions, as something mechanical. Its an idea I've run into before in psychology and counselling and I found it a comfort there also.

In counselling I was told to treat my emotions -- at least the hot emotions that run through your mind in the middle of a fight -- as an interesting phenomena, like lighting. Lightening flashes through and then is gone and so too are these hotter emotions. Yes, they are real, but do they reflect any particular truth? I'd watched so many Hollywood movies where the heroine realizes that her fiance is a jerk in a flash of sudden insight. I was relieved to findthat just because I had thought someone was a jerk during a fight didn't mean that he was one.

The mechanical metaphor is soothing when Easwaran uses it and soul sucking when we experience it in the world. So what is the difference? Easwaran and my counsellor are giving me control of my mind and emotions by pointing out that these parts of me are not my essential self. When the world acts on you or you allow others to control you then you have lost control.

If the mind is a car then it seems to matter who is driving.

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