Category Archives: Blog

Call and Response: A Dream Bell Rings…..

The method of inquiry is an awareness practice.   When we find ourselves stuck in a subjective hole, we can frame a question… hold it in Presence… and then metaphorically release that mental “?” out into subjective space.       In this way, inquiry can be likened to throwing a boomerang:  We frame a question and then listen for answers which come back to us in the form of thoughts, insights or happenings.

Zen Roshi Richard Baker told the following story that beautifully illustrates how this process works:

I dreamt I was trying to solve a problem. A brown phone kept ringing in the background, distracting me. Finally, annoyed, I picked it up. The voice on the other end told me the answer to the problem.

In the mystery of unconscious process, it feels as though life is alive and responsive to the questions we ask, and that answers are summoned by our intention to discover something.

[While the roshi’s teaching story  conveys the idea of inquiry, it is important to remember that our own answers come in their own time and their own way, and sometimes become known to us only in hindsight and in the light of self-reflection.]

Alive and Aware, Together

The quality of Therapeutic Presence which is cultivated in mindfulness practice (either therapist’s practice or client’s) is instrumental in deepening therapeutic intimacy.   By relaxing into stillness  and focusing attention on the felt sense of the now-moment,  the healing potential of the therapeutic encounter is amplified.  We may think of such presence as the basic experience of being alive and aware, Together.   

Presence facilitates the occurrence of “therapeutic now moments”.  In my book (cf https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T) , I also call such healing moments “blood moments”, borrowing a metaphor from the Native American ritual in which tribes mixed their blood in a celebration of bonding.

In therapeutic blood moments,  new aspects of self come into being.

Wise Intentions for the New Year

I call the moment when you fully know that a change is achievable realizing the imaginative possible.  When you are able to envision that an alternative is real, you experience a sudden energetic surge toward actualizing it, which becomes self-reinforcing.

 ….. Phillip Moffitt  (2012)  Emotional Chaos To  Clarity.                              Hudson Street Press/ Penguin Group USA

The New Year holiday is a natural time to reflect on the cycles in our lives – the beginnings and endings, the losses and renewals, the ongoing narrative themes that weave in, out, and through our life story.

In the ritual of new year’s resolutions,  we also have an auspicious opportunity to contemplate our aspirations and intentions, our longings as we go forward into the unfolding future.  

For more than I decade, I have had a personal new year’s practice of reflecting on and then writing about my goals and intentions for the new year.   I distinguish between goals and intentions.  Goals express our preferences for future;  what we want to accomplish;  what we want to bring into being.  They provide inspiration and direction as well as determine how we allocate our time and resources.  Intentions, on the other hand, are statements about how we would like to actually think, act, and speak in any given moment as we move forward towards our goals.   Together, goals and intentions describe our purpose—  the forward thrust of our energy going forward.

In my practice,  New Year’s is a time to focus on the “imaginative possible” (to use Moffitt’s phrase from the opening quote).     I bring my awareness to my deepest longings and I inquire deeply about what I am committed to in my life.  I reflect on the projects that I am involved in and want to bring to fruition, as well as those that are on the leading edge of my interest.

The wisdom in “new year’s resolutions”  is the fact that intentions can function as a blueprint for the changes we want to make, in several ways.  First, clear seeing and clear intention are essential in formulating effective strategies for action.  Second, when our purpose is clear and coherent, we are on course towards a particular outcome.  And third, intentions help us stay centered in the moment by keeping our attention focused on what is important and by helping us stay optimally responsive to changing circumstances and conditions.

 

Inquiry: The Practice of Curiosity

As Albert Einstein famously said, “we cannot help but be in awe when we contemplate the mystery of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day”.

A good place to start exploring your own experience is by asking questions. We can take inspiration from Alice in Wonderland.  Curiosity about what we Don’t Know has the potential to turn life on its head, revealing things in unexpected and marvelous ways.

The systematic process of curiosity is called INQUIRY.  Inquiry means investigation, exploration, but mostly it means wanting to find out. It is a questioning. “What is this? Why is that? What is happening? Where is it going?”

INQUIRY is not the same as analyzing or thinking about a question.   It means a systematic openness; an invitation to or receptivity to discovering something new. 

INQUIRY opens to whatever presents itself, whatever arises in our consciousness.    It is a form of deliberate invitation to the unfolding of our Inner Wisdom.

When practicing INQUIRY, we don’t decide on a particular route that we think will lead us someplace we want to go. Instead, we consider the experiential field we are in at this moment and discern a question, or a direction that is emerging in our experience, and we follow that.    Inquiry is not fundamentally about solving problem, although it can reveal many things that can be useful in solving our problems.

PRACTICE SUGGESTION:

In the next two weeks,  have the intention to allow INQUIRY to unfold in the form of curiosity about one or more aspects of your experience (thoughts, feelings) .

INQUIRY has to be about something we don’t understand in our immediate experience, in our daily life—something important and relevant.

For your initial practice, spend 10 or 15 minutes by writing down questions about what you don’t know, what you would like to know, what puzzles you, or what interests you.  Do this by sitting with receptive awareness, writing down questions as they occur to you  (don’t exclude any!)

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

Meditation and Attachment Disturbances

A recent  promo for a mindfulness webinar on WorldWide Insight caught my eye:

“How can we use our meditation practice to repair attachment disturbances caused by our early conditioning, so that we can be completely ourselves in our relationships with others and in our work, as we pursue the path of awakening?”  … George Haas

Imo, the short answer to this question is that we actually can’t resolve attachment disturbances that way.    Attachment disturbances are wounds that are created in relationship, and they are best healed in relationship.   Our minds are organized for interpersonal connection, and it is corrective emotional experience with others that ultimately heals attachment wounds through ‘earned attachment security’. 

Meditation practice is helpful in many ways.    It can certainly help us learn to feel connected to ourselves and thereby improve our experiences of Love and Work.  In addition, connecting to our interconnectedness with others —  and our interbeing with the whole of life – is a deep healing.   However, while creating “true refuge” in our relationship to the background field of experience (non-dual awareness) is a steady and comforting source of ground, it does not take the place of the corrective emotional experience and insight which can occur person-to-person.   

Unfortunately, transcendent experience too readily devolves into spiritual bypass.

 (I discuss the issue at length in my recently published book, “Inquiring Deeply”)

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

 

 

The Real Deal

The Real Deal

In psychotherapy, moments of meeting which are deeply felt are the most important ones.   Such moments provide the opportunity to be deeply seen and known.  In my view, this intimacy is the very heart of psychotherapy.

The actual therapeutic dialogue that takes place is only one layer of connection;  the larger part of what happens is nonverbal and implicit.  There are a myriad of possible flavors of shared experience,  all of which occur within a ‘frame’  of intimacy and presence.    But whatever the particular experience, Pooh got it exactly right…. you have to Feel It.

Mindfulness meditation helps us learn to be present with the felt sense of the experience,  to expand our awareness of each moment and to open to what is there.  Thus, mindfulness helps brings the “implicit relational field” alive in the consulting room.

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

 

 

REFLECTIONS ON WISE ATTENTION

 

For some time now,  I have been interested in the question of what constitutes “wise attention” in meditation.  As it lives for me in my mindfulness practice,  wise attention is a middle path between rigid adherence to a single pointed focus of attention, on the one hand,  (“concentration practice”) and, at the other extreme, no specific focus of attention at all (“open attention” or “choiceless awareness”).  The key to finding this middle path between the two extremes seems to lie in noticing how I choose what to attend to, moment by moment.  This is mindfulness of the process of selective attention itself.     I call this process  “curating my meditation experience”.

In my study and practice of Vipassana  Buddhism (insight meditation) over several decades, I have placed most emphasis on cultivating concentration as a skillful means to unifying and stabilizing my mind.  Concentration involves letting go of distractions in favor of focusing on a chosen object of meditation.   Once my mind has settled into some semblance of calm abiding, I have also practiced “opening up” the field of awareness to include mindful noticing of whatever arises.

As a matter of balance between these two modes of selective attention – concentration and open attention — I have been exploring the idea that there is a way to allow my meditation experience to be guided by the natural wisdom of the mind;  following the mind on its meditative path, as it were, rather than trying to lead the mind by superimposing executive control on the process.  There is wisdom in allowing thinking to unfold as it does.

I have been encouraged in this effort by the teachings of the Burmese meditation master U Tejaniya and the writings of A.H. Almaas.   A compatible  although different point of view is systematically and cogently developed in the writings of the American Buddhist teacher Jason Siff.  

Applying these teachings to my own meditation experiences and through my own lens of view,  my recent effort has been to give ongoing attention to the paths my mind most often takes during meditation and the preferential choices I sometimes exercise among various objects of attention. 

“Curating” my experience means to me following the slipstream of my interest, including what I discern to be worthy of attention.  For example,   I regard mental content such as planning what to buy at the supermarket as a trivial (as well as habitual) distraction, whereas investigating ruminative concerns and the feelings which underlie them seems important.  In general terms, ‘curating’ is how I go about feeling my way into a deeper, more unified state of awareness.  I liken the process to trying to find a path through woods, discerning that a thicket of brambles has no likely path forward, whereas other areas seem to offer the promise of a clear path going forward.

Curating experience is an intuitive process, although there is valuable information that can be gleaned from ‘maps’ such as those the Buddha taught.   In general, it is consistent with the guidance offered in the Buddhist simile of the lute, endeavoring to keep the strings of the mind neither too tight nor too loose.

COMING INTO BEING WITH OTHERS

“The blind child is guided by its mother to admire the cherry blossom”…. Kikaku

As Martin Buber famously said,  it is through Thou that a person becomes I.  Deep connection is how human beings come into being,  both in childhood and in the ongoing experiences of adulthood. 

In earliest life, our personalities and characteristics are first brought into being through the ways that our caregivers with us. Our parents see us in certain ways, determined by their own psychology; and those perceptions, in turn, shape who we become.   As the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut put it, the self at birth is a virtual self, a self which develops in the process of being seen and responded to by (m)other.

Psychotherapy engages a similar process of self-delineation.   The way that we as therapists see the person and his or her predicament — and the way that we relate to him or her — is what allows new qualities of self to emerge into being. Then, as change begins to appear, our role is recognize and validate it.

In this way, the person comes to see him or herself in the eyes of the therapist.   New structures of self are birthed in these deep moments of meeting.

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

Fake News and Story-Teller Mind

 

As accusations and counter-accusations about fake news fly back and forth in current day media, I am reminded of Kurosawa’s classic film Roshomon, which investigated the philosophy of justice.   In the plot of that story, various characters provide alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident, leaving one to ponder the deep issue of whether anything is really objective.  We have to conclude that it is not.

Consider the relevance of the Rashomon principle to the Comey hearings.   As Comey is interrogated in turn by friendly or adversarial senators, we are left alternatively with the picture of a GodFather like mob-boss demanding loyalty of his underling (or else!); or, on the other hand, with a picture of a strong corporate leader promoting his self-interest (albeit crassly).   What we conclude will depend on our own point of view, in this case inclusive of our prior opinions about Trump (or Comey).  Nothing unusual in this: as in any legal matter, the judgment one makes depends on the credibility one accords the witnesses.

Beyond the Rashomon principle, the way we understand “fake news” goes to how we understand “truth”.     Do we regard truth as objective, a matter of fact?  Or do we understand that truth always bears the stamp of what is subjective?   Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway brought this issue into public awareness when she introduced the phrase “alternative fact” in reference to how many people had attended Trump’s inauguration.  Television journalist Chuck Todd confronted her by saying “look, alternative facts are not facts.  They’re falsehoods.”  Conway’s defense of “alternative facts” in Trump’s world was widely mocked,  reminding many of us of the ‘doublespeak’ in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”.

We do well to bear in mind, in addition, that narrative is always and ever involved in how we apprehend reality.   As the Buddhist writer David Loy has said, we are made of stories; when our accounts of the world become different, our world becomes different: 

“stories are not just stories.  They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.  Without stories there is no way to engage with the world because there is not world, and no one to engage with it because there is no self.”