Digestion and Eradication

Excerpts from the book Carved by Experience: Vipassana, Psychoanalysis, and the Mind Investigating Itself

I would like to expand now on the idea that Vipassanā functions— along with its other aspects—as “a kind of ‘fasting of the spirit’” (Hart, 1987, p. 105). Bion argued that the extent to which one is able to bear the unpleasant is in direct proportion to the ability to learn from experience, to be in touch with the truth and know it. One developmental route, from this perspective, involves a transition from the need to evacuate tension (by means of hallucination and projective identification) to the ability to cope with it (Pelled, 2005). I will refer to bearing and coping with the unpleasant as some version—two of which will be presented below—of the alliance between awareness of unpleasantness and the non-aspiration to evacuate it.

Bion (1962b) argued that mental development, just as physical development, depends on an effective digestive system. Awareness and non-awareness depend on the production of alpha-elements by the alpha-function, by means of which the raw materials of experience transform into usable mental components that can be processed in “dream thoughts”. For this transformation to happen, a mental digestive system is needed, just as a physical digestive system is needed in order to transform food into something usable. For the baby, this initially occurs via the maternal mental digestive system— her alpha-function—of which reverie is a factor. The mother, who, through projective identification, ingests the infant’s experiential raw materials, digests them by means of her reverie. When everything goes well, this function is gradually internalised and installed in the baby, who then becomes equipped with it. If this happens, then he becomes able to use this mental digestive system in the face of the reality he takes in, rather than having immediately to evacuate the raw experiential materials evoked by this encounter with reality, even before they can be thought.

The ability to tolerate frustration, tension, or pain is, in this view, related to digestive processes that are transformative in nature: they make usable what is unusable, and tolerable what is unbearable. When a pain is held in a functional container, this, in itself, is transformative; if the right of difficult materials to gain entry into the psyche is not denied, if the psyche neither rejects nor evacuates them, then primitive components of experience which thought cannot bear transform into ones that can be thought and experienced as meaningful.

The doctrine of the Buddha, as it appears in the Pāli Canon and is applied in the practice of Vipassanā, puts forward another process of digestion. Here, digestion eradicates, and the transformation of suffering is total. The materials held by the Buddhist container, or digested by meditation’s digestive system, are not processed for the sake of becoming useful. In the face of the causes of suffering and the accumulations of the sa kh ras, meditation’s digestive system consumes, so to speak, rather than digests: it digests reality and consumes the mental residues that cause suffering. While making it possible to absorb and process the components of experience, it eradicates the habitual reactions that lead to the repetitive saṃsāric becoming. Trans formation, here, is radical: it is a “transformation to zero” that aims to totally annihilate suffering.

Psychoanalytic transformation cannot occur from K to O, to use Bion’s concepts, but only from O to K. Knowledge of the truth is not the product of a simple deduction based on sense perception of a phenomenon. Hence, it cannot occur in a saturated space—a space characterised by clinging to knowledge, expectation, desire, and the need to understand—but only in a non-clinging, unsaturated space, where, as expectation, desire, and understanding are suspended, at-one-ment with the unknowable absolute truth evolves (Bion, 1970). Having dwelt in a field with similar attributes, one might say that, in Vipassanā, eradication cannot occur when the desire to eradicate arises in the face of experience. When this is the case, the mind actually generates craving and clinging, which are defined as generative and fuelling actions, not as eradicating actions. Hence, for Bion, in order to know one must not want, not know, and not want to know: instead, one must allow an unmediated encounter with the truth to evolve by itself. In Vipassanā meditation, if one is to eradicate the causes of suffering, one must not want to eradicate distressing experiences, to get rid of them or, in any other manner, coarse or subtle, turn away from them. Instead, one must “contain” them, but in the most extreme sense: not just to bear them, with the help of awareness and non-evacuation, but to fully experience them while absolutely no layer of the mind reacts to them in a way that expresses a mental movement “towards” or “away from”.

Bearing or containing suffering, or, in other words, being aware of it without trying to expel it, is not the goal from a Buddhist perspective: this does not suffice to eradicate suffering. Should we, nevertheless, want to claim that they are enough, this will only be possible if we redefine the notions of “toleration”, “containment”, and “non-expulsion” as referring to the absence of any mental reaction that prefers the pleasant to the unpleasant and, hence, as referring to the non-production of suffering.

This criterion might appear too exacting, too ambitious, even impossible to achieve, but it is precisely where the path of the Buddha leads. For this to happen, it is necessary to take the experience apart, and consider its components—the body and its sensations, the mind and its contents—as objects of observation, so that abstention from reacting to them can be thoroughly practised. If physical sensations are chosen as the main object of observation, then non-reaction is practised specifically toward them, but it naturally and automatically shapes the attitude towards the other components of experience. Through the systematic observation of sensations, whose changing nature becomes a clear and present reality, emerges the recognition of all phenomena as transient, essence-less, and inherently bound up with suffering. This experientially based knowledge gives rise to nonreactivity, the Buddhist equanimity expressing the absence of biased mental movement, whether towards or away from.”

Barnea-Astrog, Michal (2017). Carved by Experience: Vipassana, Psychoanalysis, and the Mind Investigating Itself. Karnac Books, pp. 155-157.

More excerpts from the book