Category Archives: Blog

Wise Relationship to Narrative

“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 no world, and no one to engage with it because there is no self.” ……… David Loy

Buddhist psychology teaches that we must differentiate between the stories that we tell and the direct experience of life.  Thus, in mindfulness practice, the first step in working with the storytelling mind is to notice the endless stream of thoughts and commentary that accompanies our experience. We must not identify, it is taught, with story-teller mind. 

Accordingly, the question “what story am I believing now?” is a useful inquiry.   In the very act of asking this question, we have already taken a stance of observation which changes the way that we are relating to our narratives. This inquiry invites disidentification from belief: it creates space in which we can reflect upon what we may previously have assumed to be true.

However,  not all stories in the mind are created equal.  While our narratives may reinforce emotional patterns in the mind which are dysfunctional and which have the effect of keeping us stuck in old ways of being, others, in contrast, illuminate where we have been stuck and in doing so may open the possibility of transformative change.

Particular narrative themes hold important clues as to the unresolved emotions that has been stimulated in the mind.  Some stories in the mind are conscious: they are associated with explicit stories, thoughts or images that occur in the course of daily life and/or during sitting meditation.  However, other narratives are quite unconscious.  They might escape our notice entirely were it not for the presence of painful affect that is associated with them!

Even when a narrative theme is quite conscious, its meaning is often poorly understood.  At the very least, there are usually blind spots in what someone can see of the mental structure that underlies problems.  Whether understood or not, our mental narratives reveal what needs to be “worked through” psychologically.

It is true that sometimes we may need to “let go” of a particular story, hold it more lightly, or make it not so significant. But at other times, we may need to delve into the story: reflect on it more deeply, think about why we are so invested in believing it, and understand why we may have told it. This is wise relationship to narrative.

The Dharma of Trauma

One way to understand the effects of meditation is in terms of the slow but steady ‘unwinding’ of experience that occurs as relaxation deepens. ‘Knots’ of energy in the body/mind are held as patterns of somatically encoded sensation, muscle contraction, emotion, and memory, all intertwined (“non-experienced experience”). When we meet each experience as it presents itself, without resistance, these knots begins to dissolve into the space of open awareness. p. 179

But encountering the knots of energy in the body/mind during meditation can also be overwhelming.  According to Dr. Willoughby Britton, who has studied the adverse effects of contemplative practices for more than a decade,  meditation can “lead people to some dark places, triggering trauma or leaving people feeling disoriented”.   Contrary to the expectation of psychological improvements, meditation experiences can be difficult or distressing or even impairing. And this may happen even in people who have no prior psychological or trauma history.

Now, Britton and her colleague/ trauma specialist Dr. David Treleaven have created a program called First Do No Harm to help people work with these challenges. The program is aimed at meditation teachers and providers of mindfulness-based interventions—therapeutic techniques rooted in mindfulness practices—but the lessons are helpful for anyone who meditates.

In the trauma-sensitive approach, meditators are taught techniques such as ‘dual awareness’: keeping most of your awareness on something that’s safe and pleasant, but dipping into a negative emotion or trauma with 10 or 20 percent of attention.  In this way, negative experience can be titrated.

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Asking Questions

“The act of asking questions breaks open the unexamined and stagnant shell of the present, revealing the hidden and stale surfaces of the way we think about things”.  … Fran Peavey

The practice of asking questions systematically 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 to live in the question of something, to consciously engage our experience in a way which invites it to unfold. Exploring experience from a place of inquiry is an invitation, a receptivity to discovering something new. 

To be genuinely curious about what we DON’T KNOW has the potential to turn life on its head, revealing things in unexpected and marvelous ways.

Mindfulness and Psychoanalysis: Deepening The Conversation

The overlapping surfaces of Buddhism and psychoanalysis have been examined by psychoanalytic thinkers for more than half a century. Given the centrality of ‘mindfulness’ in today’s cultural narrative, a clear understanding of the role of mindful awareness in the clinical encounter is more relevant than ever.

‘Inquiring Deeply’ is a therapeutic framework which blends relational psychoanalysis and Buddhist wisdom into a single coherent frame. It borrows the methods of deep inquiry and investigation from mindfulness practice in order to amplify and unpack subjective experience. It can be conceptualized as awareness practice which focuses on the psychological world of our lived experience with others.

Inquiring Deeply within the framework of psychotherapy is a form of psychoanalytic treatment in which the focus of therapeutic inquiry remains the ‘relational field’, contemplative awareness deepens the experience of intimacy in the therapeutic encounter and privileges the felt sense of the emergent relational moment.

Psychological Healing

Because psychological wounds are fundamentally relational wounds, relationship is also a natural path of healing.  By inquiring deeply into the upsets that occur for us in relationship, it becomes possible to begin to understand what is wounded, missing, or dysfunctional in us.  

Deep emotional understanding of developmental psychological wounds, such as childhood trauma and neglect, and recognition of their impact on present-day life, lays the groundwork for healing in psychotherapy.

What Is Inquiry?

“Inquiry” is an attitude of mind.  It means to live in the question of something, to consciously engage our experience in a way which invites it to unfold. When we ‘inquire deeply’ into a problem or concern, we approach our experience with the attitude of delving into it, feeling whatever it is more fully, and inviting it to reveal itself.   Through this practice of awareness, presence, and self-reflection, we become more Real; more fully who we are.

The Mind Is Always Itself

When someone engages in both psychotherapy and meditation practice, it can become difficult for them to delineate between the two lenses of view.  A “mixing of minds” occurs;  or, more accurately,  we can notice that experience does not neatly sort itself into one category or the other.  Our experience lends itself equally well to interpretation within both of these narrative contexts (and many others).

We could say that the mind is always itself,  exactly as it is in any particular moment;  and yet never the same in any one moment and the next.   A constant stream of “minding” in process.

It is exactly as Heraclitus famously said:  no man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Mental Scars

The Buddha’s first noble truth was that there is suffering. Suffering is embedded in the nature of the human mind and in life.  

Contemporary psychodynamic theory recognizes that a great deal of psychic pain takes shape within our relationship to others.  Much of our human suffering arises from relational wounding.   

Analogous to mental scar tissue which forms at the site of injury, psychic structure embodies the history of our pain and our attempts to defend against that pain. Self is constructed within the matrix of our connection to intimate Others.

Relational wounds are complex, transmitted from generation and enacted in painful human dramas of involving love, hate, blame, resentment, greed, rivalry, conflict, heartbreak, betrayal, jealousy, and war (among other themes).  These complex threads of human drama create the intricate emotional tapestry of our lives and the structure of our subjective world.

Our relationships are the building blocks of who we become and who we take ourselves to be. Overinvested and/or unwise identifications with Self gives rise to suffering.

Loneliness and the Subjective Presence of Another

It is only when we can be sufficiently intimate with ourselves that we can be comfortable both alone and with others. 

Whereas the common definition of “solitude” is the state of being alone, solitude (in contrast to loneliness) paradoxically implies the subjective presence of the other.  From this perspective, loneliness can be thought of as a failed experience of solitude.

From INQUIRING DEEPLY,  Reflections on Connection  (ch.6)

Finding Your True Home Within Your Life


When you face your aloneness, something begins to happen. Gradually, the sense of bleakness changes into a sense of true belonging. This is a slow and open-ended transition but it is utterly vital in order to come into rhythm with your own individuality. In a sense this is the endless task of finding your true home within your life. It is not narcissistic, for as soon as you rest in the house of your own heart, doors and windows begin to open outwards to the world. No longer on the run from your aloneness, your connections with others become real and creative. You no longer need to covertly scrape affirmation from others or from projects outside yourself. This is slow work; it takes years to bring your mind home.

John O’Donohue