Intention and Attention in Contemplative Psychotherapy


Both the intention and attention that we bring to our experience has an important influence on the way reality takes shape.      In the words of one famous quote, “man’s mind mirrors a universe that mirrors man’s mind”.   We can literally watch this process as it unfolds,   the future downloading itself into our experience moment by moment.   

The processes of Intention and Attention converge when we listen deeply to our own process (or when we listen deeply to another in psychotherapy).  Even when there is no explicit intention to attend to one thing over another, there are always unconscious intentional currents at work which influence what surfaces in the mind.   There can never be a moment which is entirely free from the bias of our assumptions and views.

We can use the metaphor of pushing and pulling to explore these ideas.  If we think of the past as a push and visualization or intention as a pull, push and pull come together in the present moment by influencing how we interpret and respond to events in an ongoing fashion.  In the act of bringing awareness to the present moment, the next moment is already changed because of the alteration in view.

By and large, psychodynamic psychotherapies emphasize the causal role of the past in the present, with little emphasis on the shaping impact of awareness going forward.  It was left to New Age spiritual psychologies to fill in that vacuum with various forms of “thinking from the end”:  the fundamental idea that consciousness manifests that which it focuses on. Visualization, affirmation, positive thinking, and prayer, for example, are said to “create” whatever outcome is desired.    (This is said to be The Secret, although its actually quite widely known).  In metaphysical terms, energy follows thought.  

Attention and Intention converge in the shaping of our experience.




Rupture and Repair in Intimate Relationships


                               ‘Love,’ by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov

Most emotional problems that erupt between intimate partners stem from wounds that were incurred with parents and siblings in the formative years of childhood.  The tension between the desire for, and fear of, intimate connection can twist couples into painful knots. In order to untangle emotionally charged issues, it is necessary for each person to see how each their patterns of attachment are challenged by the partner’s. 

By gaining some perspective on the reactive patterns that get reciprocally triggered in one another, it becomes possible for the couple to come to an empathic understanding that is inclusive of the pain of both.   Each partner needs to recognize the source of his or her pain – where it originally came from – and convey it to the partner in a way that allows the pain to be shared.  In this way, relationship problems can actually become an opportunity to develop a deeper intimacy based in mutual empathy, respect and compassion.



Finding The Opportunities in Problems



As Margaret Mead once said,  “We are continually faced with great opportunities which are brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems”.    Unfortunately, we often block our ability to recognize the opportunity by focusing our efforts on making the problem go away;  by seeking a way out rather than a way through the difficulty.  In the language of mindfulness, we get caught in aversion.  Aversion is a form of resistance, and it causes whatever we are resisting to persist.

This predicament is illustrated by the experience of the Chinese finger trap.  When we insert our fingers into the little contraption made of straw,  the harder we try to escape, the more the finger trap tightens.   The counter-intuitive trick is to push the fingers inward, allowing the fingers to be removed.  

Similarly,  psychological problems often require of us that we find a way to not resist a situation that is making us feel trapped.  When we can bring about this attitudinal sleight of hand, we optimize the probability of finding effective solutions.  The best way out is always through.

Problems and solutions are two sides of one single coin.   The challenge is to relax in a way that widens our frame of view.   Solutions to problems often emerge once we see what we need to see.  Like the Chinese finger puzzle, we are most often caught in some counterproductive effort to free ourselves from some trap we find ourselves in.  We need to inquire deeply about what is keeping us stuck;  what we are holding onto that we need, instead, to let go.   (Of course, this is easy to say, but harder to do).

In this paradigm for working with psychological problems, we begin from the place of understanding that problems have innate intelligence in them by virtue of calling our attention to what we most need to see.  Analogous to pain in the physical body, they call our attention to underlying wounds.  When we bring mindful awareness to our experience of suffering, we can begin to recognize the psychological structures in which we are trapped.    Psychological healing can then occur as a function of bringing awareness to what is unconscious.