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.
A 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.
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.
One focus of attention in mindfulness meditation has no specific focus at all. Termed “open attention” or “choiceless awareness”, the instruction for this kind of practice is simply to open the field of awareness to include mindful noticing of whatever arises.
Following a session of sitting practice we had shared, I good-naturedly teased a friend about his mismatched socks. “What’s up with that?”, I asked. Without missing a beat he answered: “Oh, that’s just choiceless awareness from the bottom up”.
In Charles Dickens’ story The Christmas Carol, the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge experiences visitations from the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. As a consequence of these visions, Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man.
We can think of The Christmas Carol as a parable about the experience of “waking up” in life and its importance in the transformation of human suffering. The Christmas Carol is a kind of spiritual fairy tale. As we engage the story, we are carried along into a deep imagining of how spiritual awakening might feel. In Buddhist terms, we see an example of how greed, hatred and delusion can be transformed through the powers of insight and compassion. The timeless appeal of the story is that Scrooge is able to achieve what we all deeply long for: to transcend the structures of personality that keep us trapped in our own misery. Scrooge discovered the transformative joy of giving.
Emotional equanimity is much more than the ability to feel serene in the here and now. It is about the ability to open to and accept our emotional experience; the commitment to meet painful emotions with awareness.
Emotional equanimity benefits from a clear understanding of how emotional life is organized in the mind. It is based on emotional intelligence: the ability to recognize, understand, and manage feelings. Maintaining emotional equilibrium is not a simple technique but rather a multifaceted psychological function which lives in multiple layers of both body and mind, including innate temperament, biochemistry, and early trauma history. Except perhaps for the lucky few people who were effectively parented in early life, emotional equanimity requires a lot of inner work.
The basic way we understand emotional experience is by consciously feeling our way into it. This may be likened to the process of locating a splinter: first we have to probe the inflammation to find out what is sharp and psychologically painful. What is often insufficiently recognized is that many emotions are inherently inchoate; early nonverbal experience tends to be unformed and it cannot be expressed in words. To get the messages conveyed by our emotions, we need to be sensitive to their idiom of expression, and to develop an understanding of how they function within us. Deeper knowledge surfaces when we open to what is expressed in body sensation and images, metaphors and narratives.
Example: Trying to discern why she was feeling depressed, a woman found herself with an unexpected image of Londoners in World War II sending their children off to relatives in the countryside. As she reflected on what this image was telling her, she realized that her depression was providing a zone of emotional safety, a respite from the bruising forces in her daily life. [Ex adapted from Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotion]
Unresolved emotions lie at the heart of every psychological problem. Cultivating emotional equanimity is not only about training the mind to attain states of calm; it is about learning to use our emotional challenges as opportunities for growth. Bottom line, our feelings reveal what we are unwisely holding onto and where we need to grow. Finding the wisdom in these experiences is beautifully expressed in the metaphor of a lotus in a pond, its roots in the mud below, its flower orienting towards the light above.
No mud, no lotus.
The Importance of Storyteller Mind
It is not helpful (at least for psychotherapeutic purposes) to simply dismiss ideas, thoughts, and stories in the mind because they are fundamentally “empty” of substance. Self-reflection about the content of our narratives helps us to achieve deeper contact with what is true for us personally and anchor our experience, thoughts, and beliefs in our own wisdom.
Narratives encode subjective experience and create meaning in the psyche. They reveal the way we see ourselves and others. They make sense of what has happened to us in the past and create a blueprint in the mind for what we can expect in the future. In this way, they create the structure we live by.
Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories.
We are made of stories!
For more on this subject, see INQUIRING DEEPLY:
The “relational moment” can be defined as the felt sense of being-with a particular someone on a particular occasion. The ability to be-with is an inborn mammalian capacity for relational connection. (Every pet owner can attest to this). There is a layer of non-verbal relational knowing which exists prior to and underneath our higher mental capacities. It is this innate capacity that allows us to know what is happening when we walk into a room and get the vibe of the situation.
A special set of relational moments or “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 a 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.”
Moments of meeting vary in level of depth. The shared relational and mindful moment feels replete with Presence. Along with the felt sense of connection or intimacy – being-with – 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.
Schuman, M. (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: INQUIRING DEEPLY. Routledge Press, New York
Mindfulness of Conversation: The Dance of Speaking and Listening
Since we spend a large part of our lives talking to people, engaging in conversation can itself be a dynamic and fully engaged mindfulness practice. Just as we can explore the internal world of the body and thoughts in sitting practice, we can explore the external world of language in vocalized words, gestures and spoken interaction. This focus of attention helps open the senses, heart, and mind to receive the present moment more fully.
Mindfulness of conversation begins with the embodied experience of speaking and listening. However, far more than simply denuded ‘present moments’ of mindful awareness, there are many other layers of the experience of conversation that reflect what is happening in the ‘relational moment’. Some of the layers have to do with what is being conveyed— communication— and others with the how— the connection between us conversation. In the framework of Buddhist meditation practice, all of this falls under the heading of relational mindfulness.
The experience of conversation provides a window into the relational moment, a stage for observing the theater of the mind. Mindfulness of conversation allows us an up-close and personal experience of basic psychological phenomena and relationship patterns enacted in real time. We can observe how we show up in the relational world and we can discover a great deal about who we take ourselves to be. We can investigate what we enact with others (and what they enact with us); we can inquire into the psychological sources of those relational patterns; and we can reflect on the narratives we use to frame our experience. In all of these ways, we can gain understanding of our relational dynamics: our interpersonal reactions and their emotional roots*.
Each of these dimensions provides a variety of opportunities to observe how we relate to others in the dance of conversation. We can observe what happens at the intersubjective intersection: the intimacy or distance we experience moment by moment; our comfort or discomfort; whether we lead or follow; the energy, tempo, and flow of what we say.
In addition to the interpersonal domain, we can mindfully observe the conversation that takes place within our minds. Inner speech may manifest in words or phrases that catch our attention; at other times, it can be elaborated into ideas we want to express. We may notice replays of actual conversations we have had with others. Our minds may host soliloquies or arguments, or fantasize entire interactions. These narrative themes shed a lot of light on our actual interactions with others.
To summarize, there are at least three interwoven strands in mindfulness of conversation: communication with others, our inner narratives, and the felt sense of our symbolized experience. Through mindfulness of conversation we can discover many different voices, many different layers of knowing and cognizing within. There is value in becoming aware of the entire process.
Most importantly, mindful attention to the process of communication entails potential for change in both participants. This is especially true because communication reflects the underlying stories we tell ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) about self and other. It provides an opportunity to observe both our biases and our intentions. And, it creates an opening to practice the Buddhist principles of wise speech.
One of the most exciting aspects of the dance of speaking and listening is the realization that communication is a generative act; no one knows in advance what will transpire. It is as much (or more) an event that happens to us as it is something we ‘do’. Conversation invites something to “emerge” between ourselves and another. This potential is what the writer Ursula Le Guin “the calls beauty and terror of conversation, that ancient and abiding human gift.”
A longer version of this essay appears in Wise Brain Bulletin, vol. 12.5: “Speaking and Listening: The Intimate Dance of Communication”. http://www.wisebrain.org/tools/wise-brain-bulletin/volume-12-5.
** Schuman, M. (2018) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: INQUIRING DEEPLY
Picture credit Edgar Degas, The Conversation.
Inquiring Deeply About Emptiness
There is a not uncommon experience people allude to as “emptiness”, meaning a deep sadness, yearning, or inner sense of something missing. It often connects to a felt sense of deep deficiency or unworthiness. This psychological emptiness is quite different in meaning from the Buddhist concept of the same name, which refers to the reality that things do not exist in the way we suppose that they do; that life is empty of anything which is inherently substantial or permanent enough for us to hold onto.
A good way to think about the psychological experience of emptiness is in terms of parts of us which have been lost from awareness. What has been lost from consciousness leaves a vacancy, a place which feels empty. Sometimes emptiness is a hole in our lives which comes from the loss of someone or something. It may arise in relation to something we want very badly but despair of ever finding/having. Psychic holes in the mind may also come about as a result of traumatic experience or something else barred from memory.
We can begin to explore emptiness by inquiring into the holes we find in our own lives. What is missing? In what way(s) do we feel insufficient? What emotions do we not want to feel? What in the balance of mind, body, and heart gets too little of our attention?
We can also explore emptiness by paying attention to what we do to ‘fill’ the holes we feel within: our addictive attachments to substances, activities, and people. Ironically, our improvised ‘solutions’ to pain most often result in new, worse problems! By exploring the strategies we use to block the feeling of what is painful, we can deepen our awareness of the underlying feelings.
When we turn our attention to exploring empty places within, often we may find memories of hurt feelings and conflicts that block our natural ability to connect to others. Our most habitual and powerful feelings and thoughts define the core of who we think we are. When we are caught up in a sense of being unworthy, the universal sense that ‘something is wrong’ turns into the feeling that ‘something is wrong with me’. This felt sense keeps us on the run, driven by desperate efforts to get away from these bad feelings.
In a different vein, the experience of emptiness can sometimes be illuminated by contrasting it with its psychological opposite, aliveness. We can inquire about the experiences in which we have felt most whole and complete, most authentic, most at peace with ourselves and with our world. What has blocked these channels of vitality and aliveness?
In my view, our empty places, our ‘holes’, can ultimately only be filled by connection: both connection with others and better connection to ourselves. Healing relationships (including psychotherapy) help us through deep listening both to what we say and what we don’t say (and may never even have thought!). Deep empathic listening connects us heart-to-heart and cultivates our ability to extend compassion and tenderness towards what is wounded within us.
Mindful awareness of the experience of emptiness is a useful place to begin on the path of healing. If we have the inclination and/or interest, we may also find it useful at some point to contemplate the nature of emptiness itself. In a philosophical/spiritual sense, emptiness is the Everything/Nothing from which all manifestation arises. From this perspective, paradoxically, emptiness is a vast reservoir of unrealized potential.
In the words of the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, it is the emptiness within the cup that makes it useful.
Picture Credit: Farshad Sanaee