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Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, June 2019

               
 
 

                 INTENTION:  THE LEADING EDGE OF CHANGE

“If you look hard enough for something, eventually it will appear
  ….Ashleigh Brilliant

Dynamic psychotherapies tend to emphasize the causal role of the past in the present, with little emphasis on the shaping impact of awareness going forward. It has been 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.

We can use the metaphor of pushing and pulling to explore these ideas of cause and effect. If we think of the past as a push and visualization 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 new awareness to the present moment, the next moment is already changed because of the alteration in view. In this way, awareness (or insight about) how something was brought about may become the beginning of what comes next.  In metaphysical terms, energy follows thought.

Without resorting to metaphysics, the concept of intention in Buddhist psychology elegantly illuminates the complexity of this process. Intentions are an important dimension of thought because what we intend directs our energy and attention. Intentions frame our interpretations and determine how we hold things in mind. When we form a conscious intention, this then becomes an integral part of what unfolds next. Attention and intention light up experience and support living from the inside out.

Simple examples abound. If you are looking for someone to marry, everyone will be evaluated as a prospective mate. If you are angry and have the energy of ill-will, you will find someone to have a fight with. If you expect good things to happen, the quality of your attention will itself amplify possibilities of something good.

Because intentions are what ‘incline the mind’ in one direction or another, it behooves us to be conscious of what these intentions are. Having clear intentions is a soft form of “thinking from the end”. When our purpose is clear and coherent, we are on course towards a particular outcome. Moreover, intentions keep us centered in the moment by keeping our attention focused on what is important, and that helps us stay optimally responsive to what is unfolding.

Clear seeing and clear intention segue into strategies for action. Once we are clear about what the desired outcome is, we are poised to take whatever action is appropriate and indicated. (And conversely, our failure to see or understand important aspects of the current situation keeps us blind to important possibilities). Intention leads to constructive action in the spontaneous unfolding of the journey forward. It remains only to commit to what we most deeply value and stay on the path defined by putting one foot in front of the other.

By acknowledging the importance of intention, deep inquiry invites change. As the psychoanalyst Alan Wheelis put it, “something lies behind us, something goes before us, consciousness lies between”.    This blueprint for change is expressed in the following aphorism:

 First comes understanding, without which action is blind
 Then comes action, without which understanding is ineffective
 Finally, understanding and action become one 1.
 
[1] Source unknown

WHAT IS THE PRACTICE OF “INQUIRING DEEPLY?”

 ‘Inquiry’ can be defined as the process of intentionally living in the question of something:  consciously engaging our experience in a way which invites it to unfold.  We can “inquire deeply” about any problem or concern at the leading edge of experience.   This method is useful when we want to amplify our awareness of a challenging situation, a particular emotion, or a difficult relationship.  We approach our experience with the attitude of delving into it, feeling whatever it is more fully, and inviting it to reveal itself. 

Posing an inquiry question is a powerful act unto itself;  the question frames and constructs an intentional matrix of meaning around experience.  I think of the process of as a kind of psychospiritual exoskeleton which supports growth and the emergence of new experience.  The path of inquiry unfolds in its own way and as a function of our intuitive wisdom.  Explicit inquiry frames the intention to grow with and from our awareness of emotional life.   

The practice of inquiry rests on the existential premise (beautifully articulated by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl) that one of the most important things humans beings can do, regardless of their circumstances,  is to consciously find— create— meaning in what is happening.  In the spirit of this intention,  engaging the process of inquiry constructs an explicit frame of meaning around our experience.  It is a method for exercising conscious ownership of psychological growth and transformation. 

In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:     “Live the questions now,  and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along someday into the answers”.  ….Rilke

 

 

 

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter: May, 2019

                                        “We don’t know who discovered water,                                                                                                                   but we’re certain it wasn’t a fish ”                                                                                                                   ….. John Culkin

 

The Need To Know

Patterns of thinking are held in place, in part, by the need to know. 

In the face of any negative experience—when we are anxious or threatened or in pain— we instinctively try to think our way out of the situation.  For many people, this becomes a basic strategy for solving problems: “figure out” what to do.  Over time, we become reliant on this effort to know. This strategy solidifies into an unconsciously held and deep belief that knowing is essential to safety (or at least the illusion of safety).  We cling to knowing as a primary source of security.  It allows us to feel more in control.

Alongside this attachment to knowing, we can also observe the tendency to defend what we know (or what we believe we know).  We can notice that we cling to what we believe, and that we attempt to prove to ourselves that our views are right.   At deeper levels, we can also see the extent to which particular views and beliefs come to be invested with a sense of self.

At a yet more fundamental level, we can see how we identify with the faculty of knowing: we become the knower, never noticing, much less questioning, the assumption that who I am is the one who knows.  Indeed, the function of knowing is a basic aspect of the conscious mind, integrally involved in giving rise to the sense of self.  So, whatever it is I take my self to be, the ability to know is at the core of it.   

This kind of self-identity rests on several false assumptions.  Self-as-knower is based on what we have come to know in our lives along with all of its associated beliefs and assumptions.  It may readily become a closed circuit that limits our thinking, our relating, and our way of being in the world.  When we inquire deeply about what we know, we can begin to see that what we think we know keeps us from seeing what we don’t know, which is nearly everything[1]

When, in contrast, we are able to let go of needing to know and can relax into not having all the answers, we can begin to access a domain of deeper awareness that is based not in what we know but in the simple experience of being.  Such open and authentic experience of the present moment allows the emergence of insight and creativity.   As we learn to locate ourselves in the experience of not knowing, we can begin to transcend limiting identifications with the self as knower.

Not-knowing is the hallmark not just of this inquiry, but of any true inquiry.

As Socrates said, true wisdom comes to us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

 

 

 

[1] Quote from Gregory Kramer, 2007   Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path To Freedom.   Shambhala Press, Boston.

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter: April, 2019

 

                  The Unfolding of Wisdom:  Going With The Flow

Wisdom is inherent within us but it takes a concerted effort to learn how to listen deeply for what life is speaking.   By following the thread of inner truth which is available in whatever we experience, we connect more and more deeply both with what is so and with who we are.  

Wisdom is not abstract.  It reveals itself in insights, both large and small, as well as in the answers we discover for our deep questions and in the resolutions we find for our most vexing problems.   Wisdom is a path. 

Wisdom is also a practice.  By bringing alert receptivity to what we experience moment by moment, we increasingly discover whatever we need to see in what is going on; the meanings implicit in what is happening.  In this way, we can endeavor to receive life:   to open to life instead of struggling against it. 

In cultivating wisdom, we attune ourselves to the simple truth of experience, including emotional experience.   Wisdom unfolds naturally as we inquire about what is happening, and why;  our deepening wisdom expresses itself in our ability to be increasingly present with ourselves and others.

In inquiry practice, we attune ourselves to finding the dynamic intelligence in the flow of awareness.  To ‘go with the flow’ of life as an unfolding wisdom process means to align ourselves with what is happening.   Literally, we aspire to be like water – to flow in and around the events of life.   Going with the flow is a kind of letting go in which we allow life to carry us downstream; surrendering to the currents of our life energy,   whatever they may be, we heed the intelligence of our body, heart, and mind.  

Ultimately wisdom reveals itself in a felt sense of the existential coherence in life, inclusive of all of its thematic complexities.   In the words of the famed Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, we learn not to push the river; it flows by itself.

Life has a mind of its own.

Mindfulness vs. Psychotherapy: Discerning The Difference

Mindfulness is the meditative heart of Buddhism, and it seems to have found a secular home in western psychotherapy. This makes sense because Buddhist practice, like psychotherapy, is fundamentally a method for addressing psychological pain.

An implicitly psychotherapeutic view of Buddhist practice is also invited by the work of contemporary dharma teachers who have been educated in western psychotherapy and who have been the authors of our current Buddhist psychological narratives. For example, when we look at inspirational stories of transformation which occur during mindfulness meditation practice (such as those recounted in Jack Kornfield’s books) we see that they can be aptly described either as dharma practice or as Buddhist psychotherapy. Both narrative frameworks feel valid.

However, there are also confusions created when psychotherapeutic and Buddhist narratives are conflated. Healing in the psychotherapeutic sense is not the intended goal of Buddhist practice. Buddhist practice is defined in its own terms; it aims towards a radical re-contextualization of identity in which suffering ceases to have its usual personal meaning and significance. This goal, “liberation”, is distinct from psychological healing.

Psychotherapy is intended to relieve pain by untangling the relational knots which engender psychological suffering. In contrast, dharma practice is a method for radically transforming our relationship to the entire field of our experience — our fundamental way of perceiving and being — in a way which obviates the necessity for untangling. In any event, mindfulness cannot be adequately understood apart from the Buddhist philosophy from which it derives.

The distinction between the psychotherapy and Buddhism is well summarized in the following quote from Buddhist teacher Patrick Kearney:

 “We are all living within a myth, the myth or myths that provide us with our fundamental world view. Psychotherapists [often read] the Buddhist myth in terms of their psychotherapeutic myth…But to understand Buddhism, one must enter the Buddhist myth, and once we are within that myth, then we will naturally read psychotherapy in terms of Buddhism”.

More similar discussion in my book, “Inquiring Deeply” https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, March 2019

 

Inquiring Deeply About Self-Reflection

 

Self-reflection may be broadly defined as the process of examining our own experience in order to become aware of our thoughts and feelings. The word “reflection” itself evokes the idea of the mind as a mirror.   We may become aware of many different kinds of images in the mirror of the mind: what we see and hear, what we feel, what we think.   And, we also have the capacity to turn our attention back to the surface of the mirror itself.  This is the self-reflexive capacity of awareness. 

Self-reflexivity is built into the very structure of the human mind.   At times self-awareness operates in the background of our experience, giving rise to a vaguely felt sense of being.  At other times, it may move into the foreground of our attention, amplified through intentional focus (as in meditation) or by virtue of emotional reactions (e.g. social anxiety; embarassment) or interpersonal events.   Regardless, we can never become aware of ourselves from outside of our experience, only from within.  So self-reflexivity is always both subjective and objective;   it weaves together mind and body, thoughts and emotion, as it integrates both the observational and experiential dimensions of awareness.

Although an inborn potential, self-reflexivity is not a fixed capacity, but rather one which expands and deepens along with other aspects of psychological development.  It is organized in relation to our understanding of our own minds as well as the minds of others.  Moreover, because some aspects of ourselves are essentially invisible except in the mirror of another, our capacity to know ourselves is a function of our connection with others.

Interpersonal experience is an important domain for the development of self-reflection.   Conflicts between ourselves and others call our attention to possible discrepancies between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Such disruptions invite us to de-center from our own point of view and consider the impact we may be having on others. They also galvanize our attention to what would otherwise remain unseen in ourselves. 

For all of us, psychological defenses in the mind are engaged in order to obscure vulnerable aspects of ourselves.  We may deny or disavow realities which are painful, attribute qualities of ourselves to others, or find other ways to avoid knowing the truth about our feelings. 

What we are blind to in ourselves is the limiting boundary of our freedom. 

Self-reflection is arguably the central integrative element in psycho-therapeutic exploration and psychological growth.   Reflecting on our experience and behavior either by ourselves, or in conversation with others (including psychotherapists), can help us to become aware of how we are relating to our experience.  In seeing more clearly what we are doing, how we are feeling, and the way that we react to things, we create a greater capacity for choice.  In this way, self-reflective awareness may be likened to a “clutch” which allows the mind to shift gears so that new points of view can emerge.

Self-reflection is an evolving dimension of our subjectivity which can be intentionally cultivated in practices such as meditation.   Mindfulness meditation amplifies self-reflection through the intention to notice what one is aware of from moment to moment and through the ability to shift awareness from the content of experience to the context of background awareness which surrounds and contains it.  This enhances the clarity of what is seen in the mirror of self-reflection and creates greater access to somatic, psychological, and relational layers of the mind. 

Last but by no means least, with the cultivation of mindful attention we can become aware of awareness itself.  This transcendent dimension of self-reflexivity is conveyed by the statement that mindfulness is the state of mind in which you realize that you are more than your state of mind.   This deepening of self-reflexivity allows us to see more and more deeply into the body/heart/mind and into the nature of self.   

In the words of the Sufi aphorism, What you are looking for is who is looking”.

 

 

What We Can Learn From Trees

Because of their deep roots and the fact that they bear witness to so much of  life on Earth, trees have much to teach us.  Indeed, life itself is often depicted as a great tree with many branches; the tree of life.

One of the things that trees can teach us is that life and death are not fixed events but rather processes that occur over time.

Just outside the town of Stradivari, Italy there is a forest, with trees from which the famed Stradivarius violins are carved.   The town itself is home to dozens of the world’s greatest violin makers.  The wood from which the violins are carved is held to be still alive in important essential ways.

Each year, world class violinists come to the town and perform a concert in the forest.  The purpose of the festival is to allow the trees in the forest to hear the sweet sound of their brother or sister tree now incarnated as a Stradivarius violin.

 

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter February 2019

Meditative Listening

There is a kind of magic in the experience of feeling deeply heard. A special set of relational moments, “moments of meeting,” are those in which there is a profound sense of mutual connection.  Such “moments of meeting” occur in conversation when something is said and received in such a way that the speaker feels deeply seen, felt, accepted, and understood.    The prototype of this experience is the moment that occurs immediately after birth, when the new baby looks into the eyes of a mother who is looking back.  Such moments of mutual deep contact are what the philosopher Martin Buber understood to be the essential meeting of “I-and-Thou.”   The descriptive term “intersubjective” is also broadly useful, carrying the general meaning that two (or more) minds come together in a space of shared thought and feeling.

In addition to what is said in moments of meeting, equally important is the felt sense of connection.  Regardless of what is being said aloud in a particular conversation, we likely have a felt sense of one other and some idea of where the other is “coming from.”   This felt sense is the “relational moment”.   Of course, not every experience of being-with is mindfully known; we may feel many things, including our connection with others, implicitly — i.e., without conscious awareness. 

Moments of meeting vary in level of depth.   The conscious experience of being-with is a capacity which is enhanced by mindful attention.   Such moments often feel replete with Presence.  Along with the felt sense of connection or intimacy there is a deep sense of being oneself.  Connection may be so profound that the boundary between self and other momentarily disappears.   Wisdom arises in such moments as the compassionate and intuitive knowing of the other’s experience, and sometimes as the experience of a heart-to-heart connection between us.

We can also engage a similar quality of deep meditative listening within ourselves by turning inward to explore what we are feeling and sustaining an attitude of receptivity towards what may be emerging.  This may be called meditation, contemplation, prayer, or by other names.  I call it INQUIRING DEEPLY.  In this inward turn, we come to an inner threshold where we are in the presence of the unknown.  At this threshold, deeper wisdom has a chance to break through.
 
The hallmark of emergent moments, whether listening to another or listening to our inner experience,  is that they simply arrive:  what arises can be neither predicted nor controlled.  The emotional impact of emergent moments is amplified and the experience more vivid when they are experienced against a backdrop of deep stillness and Presence, as in meditation.  Meditative listening deep within oneself opens space for things to unfold at the living edge of our experience.
 

When experienced against the backdrop of a focused mind and a heart-centered, receptive listening field between two people,  the impact of relational presence resonates between us, deepening the experience of us both.

When you feel heard a silence falls.
In that silence more may come
Often it is something deeper: you can feel it
Just now forming at the edge of being."
...Rob Foxcroft

 

 

*More about emergent moments may be found in Schuman, M.  (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis:  Inquiring Deeply.  Routledge Press, New York.    https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

 

Inquiring Deeply About Subjectivity and Truth

Subjectivity is a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, personhood, and truth.  Though defined in different ways, the central idea is that information, ideas, and situations are true only from the perspective of a subject or subjects.

Do we regard truth as objective, a matter of fact? Or do we understand that truth always bears the stamp of what is subjective?  

This concept is illustrated in the well-known staircase drawing of the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. Two people are moving side by side on the same staircase, yet they have different ideas of what is horizontal and what is vertical. If we don’t share the same reality, it is impossible for us to walk, sit, or stand on the same floor.

story that Gregory Bateson told about Picasso makes a similar point. The artist was traveling in a train, when a stranger asked him why he didn’t paint things as they actually appeared. Picasso said that he didn’t understand what the stranger meant, so his accuser pulled out his wallet and showed Picasso a photo of his wife. “You see, that’s how she is”, the stranger said.  Picasso replied rather hesitantly: Oh, she’s quite small, isn’t she…. and rather flat!

As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, True and false are attributes of speech, not things.

Buddhist philosophy further illuminates this situation in its distinction between two levels of truth:  Conventional and Absolute.  That truth is irreducibly relative becomes apparent once it is understood (as it is in Buddhist doctrine) that there are no distinctive things or beings which can be said to be inherently “true” or “false”.

However, this philosophical conundrum leaves us squarely with the question “so what”?  What is wise view with respect to the relativity of subjective truth?

Clearly, the whole conception of my mind sitting safely in my body and looking out through its senses on to a universe which is not mind, and with which my own mind has therefore no connection except through the senses, is an impossible one.

The alternative, spiritual ‘solution’ to the problem is that once you experience who you really are – a core consciousness beyond the mind, intellect, and ego – all suffering will come to an end.  This is “enlightenment”. 

However, for me, the best solution to the quandary posed by these deep questions was expressed by the psychoanalyst George Atwood and his colleague David Klugman.  To paraphrase their idea, both the narrative impulse— the need to have and tell a story about one’s life— and the metaphysical impulse— the need for an eternal, changeless foundation for all that exists—are complementary formulations which both serve the human need for purpose, meaning, and wholeness. 

Narratives, including the meta-narrative we call “self”, provide a reassuring coherence and unity in the diverse elements of our otherwise unbearably chaotic personal lives.  And spiritual narrative (Absolute truth) provides an image of a cosmic ground that solidifies the transitory impermanence which otherwise may seems to threaten us with dissolving into nothingness.

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, January 2019

CONTEMPLATING 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

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 intention 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.  They can function as a blueprint for the “imaginative possible” (to use Moffitt’s phrase from the opening quote).

Because intentions are what ‘incline the mind’ in one direction or another, it behooves us to be conscious of what our intentions are. Having clear intentions is a soft form of “thinking from the end”: the fundamental idea that consciousness has a shaping impact on awareness going forward.  In new age psychology, this idea is captured in the phrase “energy follows thought”.   If we think of the past as a push and visualization 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 new awareness to the present moment, the next moment is already changed because of the alteration in view.

Without resorting to metaphysics, the concept of intention in Buddhist psychology elegantly illuminates the complexity of this process. Everything that happens, the Buddha taught, begins with our thoughts; for good or ill, our thoughts are the foundation of what arises. Intentions are an important dimension of thought because what we intend directs our energy and attention. The back and forth movement of attention lights up the process of ‘minding’ that is the unseen background of experience as it arises. Intentions frame our interpretations and determine how we hold things in mind.

When we form a conscious intention, this then becomes an integral part of what unfolds next. Attention and intention light up experience and support living from the inside out.

When our purpose is clear and coherent, we are on course towards a particular outcome. Moreover, intentions keep us centered in the moment by keeping our attention focused on what is important, and that helps us stay optimally responsive to what is unfolding.

Clear seeing and clear intention segue into strategies for action. Once we are clear about what the goal is, we are poised to take whatever action is appropriate and indicated. (And conversely, our failure to see or understand important aspects of the current situation keeps us blind to important possibilities). Intention leads to constructive action in the spontaneous unfolding of the journey forward. It remains only to commit to what we most deeply value and stay on the path defined by putting one foot in front of the other.

Wishing us all a safe, healthy, and vital new year.