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June 2024


Some Reflections on Cultivating Subjectivity



As readers of this Newsletter likely know,  I have spent a good part of both my personal and professional life inquiring deeply about subjectivity and the experience of self.    My inquiry has been grounded both in the Buddhist meditation and psychoanalysis.    In my 2017 text, I wrote about these subjects in depth in an academic vein.  But just recently,  I have been reflecting deeply about my personal views about the cultivation of subjectivity. I will by-pass complex definitions here in favor of the simple idea of subjectivity as the experience of ourselves as a conscious thinker and feeler.

From a Buddhist perspective, the goal for subjective development is centered around calmness, stability, and clarity of mind, and the method prescribed for cultivating those qualities is meditation.   In different traditions of practice, meditation may be focused and concentrative, open and contemplative, or heart-centered and compassionate.  Regardless of the emphasis in a particular practice, Buddhism teaches that through mindful observation of sensations, thoughts, and emotions,  a deeper and more precise awareness of mind and body is cultivated,  allowing practitioners to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of existence.

But although I have practiced Buddhist meditation for many years,  my comments here are not about Buddhist practice per se but rather about how meditation has shaped my way of being with my ordinary, everyday mind.  I am not interested here in liberated, enlightened, or transcendent subjectivity, nor in particular qualities such as equanimity and compassion which are cultivated on the Buddha’s eightfold noble path.  Rather, my focus here is on how to cultivate growth, authenticity and vitality.   My subjective “goal” is to become more and more comfortable living in my own skin, and everything that entails, especially the quality of my connections with others.

What seems evident to me is that when we spend dedicated time connecting with and observing the inner world of our experience (in meditation, psychotherapy, or in whatever way), subjectivity begins to evolve and change as a function of the attention that we bring to it.  This process of connecting with our inner world has been called “minding the mind”. [i]


For me, “minding the mind” means simply paying attention to the inner world of thoughts and feelings.   It includes conscious attention to the entire range of subjective experience:  body, heart, and mind (of course), but not limited to the present moment.  In short, minding the mind is best described as self-reflective awareness practice.  It is deliberately inclusive of the multiple layers of narrative meaning in which our awareness is embedded.

Analogous to the concept of emotional intelligence as the ability to understand, use, and manage our emotions in positive ways, people vary in their subjective intelligence about the inner world of thoughts and feelings.  Some people are by nature more psychologically minded, more self-reflective, and more alert to nuances in subjective meanings than others tend to be.  Although self-reflective awareness is often considered to be an aspect of emotional intelligence, it seems to me that subjective intelligence—how we think about and reflect on our own mental processes— should be considered a category unto itself.  It includes what in psychology is called  “mentalization”: our ability to understand how people behave based our interpretation of their probable feelings, beliefs, needs, and goals.

Everyone’s subjective intelligence is unique.  In my own inquiry about “subjective intelligence”,  what has had the greatest impact on me has been the deep felt sense of truth in the recognition that subjectivity is intelligent.  Minding the mind cultivates intuitive wisdom.

The concept and practice for which I coined the term “Inquiring Deeply” emerged from subjective intelligence.  Although the underlying ideas are by no means original to me, what I discovered organically over time was that there was power in my self-reflective awareness, and that this power was amplified in deep conversation with others.   (The interested reader is referred to my 2023 book Inquiring Deeply:  Problems as a Path to Awareness.[ii])


At any given moment, we are always “practicing something”.    [Whatever we are doing, that is what we are practicing.]   Some of what we are practicing can be readily observed with self-reflection.   Other aspects of ourselves have unconscious roots that make them opaque or even impossible to see.

In addition, many of us also have some idea about what aspect of our subjectivity might usefully be improved.  In this regard, it can be helpful to inquire deeply both about what we wish to cultivate and about what is in the way.

To illustrate with a simple example from my own experience,  quite often I find myself unwittingly practicing being in a hurry.  It is abundantly clear to me that I would benefit from slow downing.  And yet, the habit of hurrying is deeply ingrained (and characterological!)   I recognize that staying busy is a psychological defense that keeps me from feeling what is underneath.  And so, slowly down has been a lifelong and ongoing project.  Inquiring more deeply, my underlying aspiration is to be able to relax and enjoy greater peace of mind.


We can best access subjective intelligence by dropping into experience and allowing it to reveal itself.  A direction or instruction I often give myself is to receive experience;  to soften, relax and allow.

My embodied experience of Receiving sometimes takes the form of a kinesthetic experience of flowing or gliding.  In my deepest moments, I have a sense of surrender into this somatic experience or sometimes even a sense of dissolving at my body boundaries altogether.   To “go with the flow” means literally to aspire to be like water— to flow in and around the events of life.  In this way, we align ourselves with the organic intelligence of life.


An additional dimension of subjective intelligence that interests me greatly is the process of Becoming.   Self-reflection inevitably engages our thoughts and feelings about who we are and who we wish to become.  It can be skillful to ponder and/or envision that which we wish to make real. Becoming is aided and abetted by awareness and guided by conceptual understanding.

The stoic philosophers advocated an attitude of amor fati, a latin phrase that translates to “love of one’s fate”.  Amor fati is the attitude of accepting and embracing everything that happens in life, including suffering and loss, as good or at least necessary. (It also entails the understanding that change is a natural part of the universe, and that without it, we wouldn’t exist).


 As I have written elsewhere, there is wisdom in problems and opportunities for growth contained within them. Problems are the leading edge or horizon of change in our lives. They call our attention to what we most need to see.  Like an extended conversation that takes place both within ourselves and in the external world simultaneously, deep inquiry about problems shows us where we have shut down, where we need to wake up, and where we need to grow.  By following the natural path provided by what surfaces in our lives, our problems, struggles, and unanswered questions become catalysts for the development of wisdom.

As a colleague pointed out to me, structures of self are organized both to communicate with others and, via self-reflection, to communicate with itself towards its own greater good. [iii]  In other words, the self is built to know itself.  We need only follow along in the slipstream of awareness, paying attention to the inner guidance provided by subjective intelligence.



[i] Buksbazen, J.  (2006).    Personal communication.

[ii] Schuman, M. (2023)  Inquiring Deeply:  Problems As A Path To Awareness.    Inquiring Deeply Press.

[iii] Sherman, Gary (2023)   Personal communication



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