The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay 2004: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Sensitive Spirituality:
HSPs, Meditation, and Enlightenment

Although this article does not often mention HSPs, meditation is a practice well suited to HSPs. Enlightenment, whatever that is, seems to pertain to us as well. So I am going to tackle both subjects at once.

Why I Meditate--And Don't Discuss It Very Much

Over the years there have been a few articles on meditation in Comfort Zone, but not by me, although I meditate almost two hours a day, and have since 1971. I do not like to tell people why or how to meditate. I suppose this is because for a while I taught Transcendental Meditation and was such a great advocate of it that I grew tired of “preaching.” I know meditating has provided me with insight, energy, better health, relief from stress, a way to quickly retreat and recover from overwhelming stimulation, a means of calming those around me, the ability to function for a day with little sleep, some amazingly sweet moments in and out of meditation, and a sense that every year I am improving because of this practice. Still, I fully accept that meditation does not appeal to everyone. And sometimes I am myself a bit skeptical about spending so much time at it.

Further, an important reason that I do not talk more about meditating is that I know it is a controversial area. People who do not meditate may reject it on religious grounds, may have tried it and found it did not help them and quit, or think they ought to do it but have quit or never started, so that they feel defensive when the subject comes up. Then there’s the problem of people who do meditate using another method. The term “meditation” is a bit like the term “medication.” There are many kinds, not one. Whatever form of meditation people use, they think it is the best or they would not use it. In fact, someone usually sold them on it and told them why it was the best. So if someone already meditates, and I do too, but using a different method, one of us would seem to be wrong. Of course one could argue that different forms of meditation are good for different people or different purposes, but most people are wanting roughly the same thing from their meditation: experiences of something “higher” or “deeper” and an enriched daily life. So having the “right one” can feel like it matters. My own teacher used to say, “why take a bad road when you can take a superhighway?” But to where? Well, some of us are or were hoping to become enlightened.

What's Enlightenment?

Enlightenment. What a loaded word. Some people claim it has happened to them, although in the Indian tradition you would generally not speak of your own state or experiences. But India’s Vedic tradition and Buddhism (Buddha was Indian) do make enlightenment the goal of life, or else not the goal but a state you are in right now if you just realized it, so then realizing it is the goal. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sufism, and other traditions have also described saint-like people with enlightenment-like experiences.

What are these experiences? There are no hard and fast statements here. Generally it dawns suddenly, dramatically. But not always, and partial experiences leading up to the state may last for years or come and go. By definition it is permanent once it is complete, although a Zen teacher (maybe more than one) is said to have had many such sudden shifts. There is usually a profound sense of expansion, of knowing one is not the same as one’s body or ego, but something infinite, whether one is one with God or calls it something more abstract like Brahman or the Absolute. The needs, desires, suffering, and general importance of the personal self simply cease to matter. One is separate or detached from everything, but not in a dissociated way. Rather, one becomes a silent witness to everything. Or the state is more like a unity with The Everything. Or a sense of profound love.

This awareness remains all of the time, even during sleep. It is not something one thinks about, however. It remains in the background. If one were wearing a coat, one would not always be thinking about it, yet one would be aware of it.

As for the enlightened person’s moods, which are always the ordinary person’s undoing, they are said to be peaceful, secure, and blissful. Other emotions such as anger or fear may arise in response to the needs of the environment, but do not shake the deeper stillness. An analogy is that you are in a state a bit like the one a child enjoys when playing in the yard while aware that Mother is at home. The child does not think about the mother, yet her presence makes the child feel more secure, able to play wholeheartedly, and more likely to feel cheerful and see beauty in everything.

Perhaps the most important feature is that the enlightened report losing all fear of death or suffering. Their body can suffer, but they do not. Often they report living only in the moment, in an eternal now, without any worries. For some, everything is exactly as it should be. For others, their deep love causes them to continue to act, but only for the sake of the world. They feel the suffering of others deeply, but there is nothing they themselves want or need. Miraculous abilities are often attributed to the enlightened, or miraculous things happen in their vicinity. But these are not done for self-aggrandizement, but to demonstrate the reality of what is possible, or else they simply occur naturally, without effort.

Does This State Exist?

Are there really any enlightened people? There are many reports, many stories. But are these real or made up to encourage us? I would like to meet just one enlightened person, or see one miracle. Maybe I have. We know there are some remarkable people on earth. (For some biased yet persuasive evidence, you might enjoy reading some of the 33 accounts from many different traditions in Moments of Enlightenment, edited by Robert Ullman and Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman, MJF Books 2001.) But I also know I have met some people who were supposed to be there and on closer inspection were not, at least in the sense I had expected. I have perceived certain people to be generating a powerful, highly unusual “energy field” around them. In some cases this energy seemed to be actually affecting the minds of those in the vicinity, and many odd, somewhat miraculous things happened in their presence as well. But such people did not always seem to have the integrity one would expect from the enlightened. And I have seen this sort of peculiar, powerful energy in many people who have been meditating for weeks and weeks during a meditation retreat (although such retreats can also make some people very crazy). Presumably this “energy field” would be even more powerful if a person has meditated for years and years, always living a somewhat protected life, devoted to maintaining that state of consciousness. But drop them down into a cubicle in a high tech firm or a county office, give them too much to do in too little time, and would they still be so glowing? If not, they are not enlightened.

Also confusing matters for me is the fact that sometimes a supposedly enlightened person has an entourage of devotees. This makes me wonder if some of the numinosity surrounding such people is due to the energy being projected onto them. It helps that the leader is usually dressed specially, may be from a different culture, and otherwise stands out and apart as if more than human. What caused this attention to come to this person? Maybe dramatic stories told about him or her (these seem to be very common in most traditions and always stretch my credulity) or the followers themselves feel the person has a powerful personal presence and has been a positive force in their lives. But is this a permanent state of flawless love and devotion to others, or only what the followers want to see? How wonderful to think there could be an enlightened person, to guide us, to give hope that the world could be directed in a better way, to inspire by proving that at least some of us can get there. But as my mother says, “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.”

I have certainly heard followers rationalizing anything a supposedly enlightened leader did by saying you can’t judge an enlightened person’s actions. These actions are said to always for the good of the world, exactly what was really needed or the karma that had to be delivered, even if he kills someone or she says “dig for water here” and water is never found. I have also known of behaviors the followers did not see, behaviors that would probably be deeply disillusioning to them. But then, how can the most enlightened teachers be impervious to inflation when they are constantly adored? And do they never become sick of their followers, or simply sick and tired? Are they always virtuous and fearless? That seems impossible. But then, if that is true of even the enlightened, what does or would make them special, and is the state worth developing?

Perhaps, if there is a state of enlightenment, as so many have reported, one has to lower one’s expectations about what kind of person it creates, and that is what I would tend to do. Perhaps it is possible for the nervous system to make a dramatic shift towards more security and peace. That in itself would be quite wonderful. Perhaps one cannot expect perfection from such a person, however, or even goodness always.

Further, there are so many skeptical, cynical people, especially in the media, who love to report or hear about a supposedly enlightened “guru” being in fact a fraud, crook, crank, or sexual pervert. And do I do the same? Does my own skepticism, envy, or low level of consciousness blind me to the reality of enlightenment? To me these have always been important questions. Just how good can a human be? (We HSPs can have a lot invested in that answer.)

If Enlightenment Does Happen To Some, Can It Be Developed In Others?

Let’s agree for now that there are people who have achieved a permanent expansion of awareness that they or their traditions would call enlightenment. One of the seemly nice things about these people is that they usually try to help the rest of us achieve the same. Sometimes they only describe it, in the hope that we can begin to experience life the same way. Others teach techniques, or let others be in their presence with the intention that their state will spark the same state in those around them. But have they ever succeeded in enlightening others? Not often, apparently, or there would be many more enlightened persons than there are, if there are any.

One ordinary American wrote about the beginning of his enlightenment in a way that was fairly convincing to me. He was on a train in Thailand, in a compartment with his wife, and thieves pumped a gas into the space and then robbed them. He was apparently more affected than his wife, and when he awoke, he felt entirely different--enlightened in the ways I have described. This feeling never left him. It was not something he had sought, so it seems to be a fairly innocent report. I have not heard that this man has made any major contributions to the world, although some would say he does through his mere existence. I don’t know if he still fights with his wife or is ever troubled by getting bald.

What I found most interesting about him was that he subsequently turned his attention to what the many different spiritual teachers have taught when they have tried to enlighten others. After studying this for years, he concluded that it was a noble goal, but whatever this state is, it has rarely if ever been passed on to others, although the practices may have many other good benefits. It was interesting that for the most part the various methods involved having people imitate the thoughts, actions, attitudes, or physical abilities that would spontaneously occur in someone enlightened. For example, if we would just stay in the “now” like the enlightened person does spontaneously, we might gain that state. Or if we could stay aware of pure consciousness as the background to all existence, or try to witness our actions, or stop being attached to our “small self,” or stop having thoughts during meditation so that there is only the experience of pure consciousness, or feel love for everyone, or think only of God, or act out of devotion towards others as if they are God. The trouble seems to be that these attempts at imitating the enlightened cannot produce the underlying state of consciousness that enlightenment seems to be, the change in the nervous system that seems to allow this radical development to occur. Most people grow tired of forcing themselves to do something unnatural. The more determined go on doing it for years, and while they may become quite adept at the specific behavior, it seems as though they rarely become enlightened.

To put it another way, it is almost impossible to concentrate on staying in the moment or witnessing your own thoughts and also plan what to have for dinner. Dividing the mind like that only leads to frustration and fatigue. It seems that an enlightened person does not have to think about this second reality. It is just there.

So I personally would advise forgetting becoming enlightened by imitating an enlightened person’s compassion, ideas, avoidance of unhealthy food and substances, good mood, good posture, and all the rest. It may be good for you to do all of this. But whatever enlightenment may be, it is not a mood.

A Different Approach?

The system of meditation I learned, TM, made great sense to me. It is also the one I understand best. So I will talk a little about it. You close your eyes with the intention of going within. You think a meaningless sound, a mantra, that comes from an ancient tradition and is selected to be suitable for you. The choice is made by the teacher and the criteria are kept secret, only so that one has to learn from a TM teacher. That way they will continue to be paid professional fees (TM is now fairly expensive) and therefore be available in most communities. Their availability is crucial, because at first having frequent meditations with a TM teacher is the real key to learning to meditate, and once you learn TM, there’s no limit to the number of times you can come back to meditate with a teacher and have your questions answered, and there are TM teachers in almost every city on earth! So while it seems like you are paying for a mantra, it is not very important compared to learning the right way to use it, and this requires a lot of give and take between teacher and student.

Still, very roughly, here’s how it works. Your mantra takes your mind to a more settled place, and then eventually you have a thought. You don’t force it out. You just return to the mantra. Unlike almost every other form of meditation, there’s no concentration or contemplation of an idea or observing of your own thoughts or breath. The point of the mantra is that it is a vehicle for going deep into the subtlest levels of consciousness, those quiet places where thoughts are almost abstract, meaningless shapes. The mind naturally settles down into this state, just as someone walking can sit down and someone sitting can lie down. Forcing it there is not necessary, but intending to go there helps (rather than sitting down, closing your eyes, and intending to outline a novel or to just see whatever comes).

Again, of course, pretty soon you are thinking about other things. No problem. You just quietly return to the mantra. Each cycle you go deeper. Or you don’t. Occasionally I have meditations when I never think my mantra because I am so upset or excited about something! Still, twenty minutes of this brings most people on most days into a deep state of inner peace. You are completely aware and alert, yet utterly relaxed. For example, to get up from this state without taking a few minutes to “come out” causes most TM-mediators to feel great discomfort (dizziness, pounding heart) because the whole body is so far from a state of activity. And this is true even if you seem to have only been thinking about the fight you had with a friend.

TM’s Version of Enlightenment

How is TM supposed to develop enlightenment? The idea is that after you have been in this state enough, it just naturally begins to permeate the time when you are not meditating. Does it? It seems to, to some degree, especially as years go by. Is this enlightenment? I don’t think I am enlightened, thank you--at least not by the definitions I have used. I feel more peace and security, but definitely not all the time. I do feel some of this sense of witnessing what I do. I find it very easy to enter into a deep, blissful state of meditating (as most people do even on the first day they learn TM). If I turn my attention there, I can even feel that bliss when I am not meditating. But I can still be so upset that turning my attention there is the farthest thing from my mind, or else seems impossible.

Okay, let’s say that TM can develop a kind of permanent witnessing of experience that causes one to feel separate from everything, just a little bit, as the enlightened describe. Let’s call this a higher state of consciousness. Is it? It’s good to feel separate from the crowds on the subway or the threat of terrorism. It’s not so great to feel separate from other humans or from the beauty of nature. Yet in a sense, one feels these are all going on in another realm, while you exist in a timeless realm.

Fortunately, at least in theory, things do not end there. Even while feeling separate, all of this meditating does cause you to be even more highly sensitive to everything. In particular, you tune into the sacred, celestial beauty in everything. Or, the beauty in one thing or person. This is probably what fuels some of the healthy forms of devotion one sees between a spiritual teacher and student. Whatever this love and yearning is directed towards, it is like yet another state of consciousness. And it has the effect of gradually reuniting the detached inner life with the subtle outer world that one now appreciates so much more deeply. In short, the subtle beauty one is able to perceive lures the witness of everything back into the everything. This state is perhaps a still higher state of consciousness or of human development in this sphere of endeavor call spirituality.

After this rekindling of interest in the ordinary world, an interest that can develop to the point of devotion, one might theoretically at least become aware one day that the witness and the everything it witnesses are all the same thing–aspects of consciousness. And that is yet another, still “higher” state of consciousness. There are probably more possible, but that much in itself is an interesting vision of what the human mind may or may not be able to do, through meditating or through sheer grace.

How Much Is Suggestion?

One problem with the above is how much it requires someone else to explain to you what you are experiencing. It is not all natural or spontaneous. How would you know that your own private experience of something profound is in fact what makes up the world? Perhaps it would just dawn on meditators after awhile, but usually there’s some teacher or tradition that has told them what to expect. See? I am getting skeptical again. I haven’t any idea about how much you should believe what I have written. I only offer these ideas as theories to be tested. If I seem too supportive or unsupportive of them, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the evidence. Will we see human beings grow in these directions? Does meditation promote it?

Being HSPs, I know that some of you will want to find out for yourself, while others of you already think you have. But do what you can to be sure that you are not being deluded. There are countless stories of the feats of the enlightened, such as precognition, healing powers, and out-of-body travel. But have you seen anything like that yourself, with your own eyes and not under social pressure? Have you such abilities yourself? Are you sure? Ah, here I go again.

A Jungian View

As you know, I am enthusiastic about some of the ideas of C.G.Jung, especially regarding dreams and the unconscious. Jung seemed to be as deeply ambivalent as I am about higher states of consciousness. But that is another story. From a Jungian perspective, however, there are some other ways to think about enlightenment.

First, the very term seems to rule out darkness. Western culture seems to have a fixation about getting rid of the darkness in life in all of its myriad forms: mystery, death, what-we-don’t-know, the dark of night, and the body’s needs, instincts, innards, and anything that comes out of it. It can even extend to a prejudice against dark human skin and black cats. Of course we are weirdly fond of this darkness, too. But in our imagery, light is good, dark is bad.

We also like perfection. Utopias, perfect scores, new records, heaven, perfect love, the perfect job, house, car, or dress. Above all, we would like a human to be perfect, at least for awhile, but all the time would be wonderful. So of course we have terms for them: saints, geniuses, heros, stars, and the enlightened.

But what happens to human instincts? To our animal nature? To our imperfections? They are denied, but they can not be done away with. They always seem to come back to haunt those who most proclaim their purity, sexual or otherwise. And what does it mean to cease to be identified with our suffering if our body still suffers? Isn’t this a magnificent splitting off of our instinct for survival and our built-in capacity to feel pain that really hurts and goads us to action? Why do we long for such a thing? Well, because it is so difficult to be a conscious animal, to be conscious that we are suffering and going to die. Of course we try to find a solution, and one is to stop really feeling these things. If it works, fine, but it seems to me that this sort of denial has caused considerable trouble in the world, so that others suffer more as a result rather than less. Certainly teaching millions of people that they ought to imitate saints and enlightened beings has not produced a good world so far. But maybe I, maybe all of us, expect too much from the enlightened.

What I Think Today

My own opinion on all of this is constantly changing. But here’s my hunch about it today. The ego or personal consciousness is the product of the body, although not the same as the body, as the body’s heat is not the body. There is also something Jungians call the Self, and I think those in Vedic tradition might call Atman, the indwelling or potential personal experience of the Absolute (as opposed to Brahman, the Absolute itself). The ego has a relationship to the Self, which Jungians call the ego-Self axis. We are born with ego and Self merged, and ego barely present, at least as a separate entity. We return to that merger as we near death. During our lives we can be close or distant to the Self, and there are typical stages for most people.

Now, suppose a person’s ego suddenly fully experiences the Self? Jung makes it clear that the Self is the Self, unknowable and complete and including us and everything else we experience within its Self, but there is also an archetype of the Self, meaning an innate or universal cultural idea of it. It is this vision of the goal that helps to keep us seeking enlightenment, sort of like an innate idea of Mother probably helps a newborn mammal orient to her, seek her. We would all like to merge with the Self, whether that is more like a desire to “return to the womb” or to achieve some “higher” and future, ultimate stage of life. So, suppose it happens? Suppose we fully experience the Self?

Even if that state never leaves us, we still have an ego that can never be exactly the same as the Self. It has a life apart as long as it has a body. It demands that we try to stay alive, that we eat and sleep, and it says we prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla or democracy or monarchy or one person over another. It can also identify with an archetype–think it is the Great Mother or the Devil. Or the Self. Now, it cannot ever quite be the Self. But when an ego identifies with any archetype, it is in trouble. It feels godlike. It loses sight of its humanness, its instincts and preferences and unavoidable personal foibles. It thinks these are all equivalent to a god’s words.

Identifying with the Self as archetype may be the most dangerous confusion of an ego with an archetype. Acting from that position, the ego begins to make serious mistakes, like thinking it knows how to make others enlightened or how to change the world. It may even think it blesses others by having sexual union with them, or by giving others the chance to merge their egos with itself, becoming a sort of robot extension of the enlightened person. (Jung said that the way to know you are in the hands of a cult is when the leader tells you to dismiss your own dreams as unimportant, and forces you to live out the symbolism of his or her dreams.) Suddenly enlightenment looks like endarkenment. As Jung said, I believe, the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Or he should have said that.

Well, most of us will probably not have to worry about the psychological dangers of a full, permanent experience of the Self. But we have to watch out for the social dangers of others who have and whose egos are identified with the Self. In the East, this is often avoided by the external social structure, which keeps the ego touched by the Self “in its place.” First, you probably have a teacher and a long tradition of teachers, and you are taught to always bow, defer, and obey them. You can’t be the ominipotent One and Only Self if they are too! Further, there’s a whole culture familiar with ego inflation that would prohibit it. Students would avoid such teachers. Mothers would probably call their enlightened son or daughter and say “get off your high horse.” Humility bordering on social invisibility is always a hallmark of the “truly” (read “safely”) enlightened.

When these teachers from the East come here, they are often stepping outside of that protective culture, and they do not have the Western alternative. That alternative, arising from a more individualistic culture, is a thorough ego-scrutiny and ego-knowledge. Without that, I personally suspect that no Westerner (whatever that is in an increasingly global culture) can even be enlightened. Without an ego-analysis, the ego would interfere too much, with either deflating skepticism or inflating identification with the Self as archetype that stops the person short of the goal.

With that kind of Western-style ego-scrutiny, however, comes the risk of thinking the ego is all there is, and any vision of the Self is just the ego’s wishful thinking. It is this kind of emphasis on the ego the causes many of the people whom you would think would be most interested in the higher levels of human development to instead discount stories of enlightenment. It all seems to them like ego-inflation. To trust that our silly ego has had a “real” religious experience, most educated Westerners have to be hit over the head with it, with LSD or a religious conversion. Because to announce this as one’s goal and work at it day by day through meditation would seem to be antithetical to a proper ego attitude. The ego would seem to be only spinning an illusion meant to inflate and give false comfort. And maybe that’s all true. Yet some egos still seek, seek, seek, even if they don’t dare to think they have found anything. Perhaps they seek because there’s something imbedded in us, like a radio antennae, that is scanning the universe for a message. It could be there’s nothing there. Or it could be that we are designed to seek because we are meant to find. All we have to do is change our minds.

Sorry I don’t have any answers, but I sure can raise questions, yes? Actually, every day more personal answers come to me, and I will share these here when they seem ready for that. I hope your personal discoveries are coming along too, and we’ll meet at the same goal.


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