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Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, August 2019

 

                                             

ON BEING ONESELF

“Today you are you, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is you-er than you.”
….Dr. Seuss

The curious fact is that it’s not always easy to just “be yourself”, nor even to know precisely who that is.   

 “Who Am I?” is one of the most basic questions we can ask in deep meditative inquiry.  This question first appeared in my awareness somewhere around the age of 3, and it is still alive in me.

We can address this question at various levels of depth, both intellectually and experientially.  I can convey some basic points of my understanding by describing the experience I had several decades ago at a contemplative inquiry retreat. The inquiry took place in a dyadic dialogue format.   In each 45 minute segment,  one partner simply gave the prompt: “tell me who you are”, while the other partner contemplated, answered, and then contemplated some more.   We reversed roles.  Then we changed partners.  For a total of 54 hours. 

Of the many things that happened for me during this profound retreat, one vivid element I recall was the sensory experience of the collective voices in the room.  The first night was marked by the sounds of lively chatter as everyone told their story:  (What I do for a living, who I’m married to, what I studied in school, what I do for fun, where I live, etc.)   By the second day, the collective mind of the room had become very much more settled.  There was a lot of silence in the room, and a palpable sense of meditative presence.  (Similarly in my own mind:  a lot of stillness, with empty space between thoughts).

While it was interesting in its own right to observe the content of what came up for me in response to the prompt, eventually it all seemed to  boil down to the feeling of “blah, blah, blah”:  a kind of boredom I felt about the oft-told story of myself (or maybe even a certain boredom with self itself.)  I gained a deep appreciation of a truth articulated by the psychoanalyst Roy Schafer:   The self is a story; it is the story that there is a self to tell a story to.

At the same time, it was also clear that behind the story of Who I Am — beneath the layers of identity and personality — there was a felt experience of what it is like to be me.  (Who am I?  I’m me! )  This felt sense was ineffable, but somehow constant behind fluid and continuously changing subjective experience.   I felt a profound sense of realization regarding the truth of Heraclitus’ well-known aphorism “you can’t step in the same river twice”.    (It wouldn’t be the same river, nor would it be the same person.)  And yet, there was also an indisputable experience of sameness within the subjective diversity: a sense of ‘me’.  This subjective experience is what we call the psychological self (the being of which is the topic of this discussion.)

Looking back from my current vantage point, several decades later, my sense is that becoming myself has been a lifelong process of deepening authenticity.  Though difficult to define,  authenticity refers generally to the congruence between what we say/do and who we are.  Simply put, I am authentic when I am being myself (so at this point the definition becomes circular).   Nonetheless, broadly speaking, authenticity is reflected in how we inhabit ourselves; how comfortable we feel in our own skins; by our spontaneity and freedom of expression. It also carries the meaning that we are fulfilling our innate potential. 

In contrast, we are inauthentic when we show up in a way that forfeits individual meaning in favour of the habit of trying to please and accommodate to the wishes of others.  In this case, the natural, spontaneous expression of “who we are” gets coopted.   “False Self” supplants “true self”.

The ability to authentically be oneself is reflected by how we show up in life.  It has to do with how we relate to ourselves as well as with our ability to be vulnerable and intimate with others.  It is an evolving dimension of being increasingly comfortable and natural, as expressed by the following great quote:  “I used to be different, now I’m the same.” *
  
The quality and depth of being which is engaged when I am being myself is the quintessential thing.   The ideal state of being entails an experience of flow as well as a sense of being optimally tuned and responsive to what is going on both internally and externally.  We feel alert and aware; subjectively cohesive, alive, and integrated. This is what I call, for want of a better phrase,  “true subjectivity”.   In some moments, this experience may deepen into stillness, a sense of mystery or even awe: ultimately, the ineffable experience of being itself.  In such moments, we come home to ourselves.

 

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*Title of film which documents Erhard Seminars Training (Werner Erhard, 1978).

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, July 2019

INQUIRING DEEPLY ABOUT HOW WE CHANGE

 Many – most — things that cause suffering are beyond our control.  But even those circumstances in which it appears we do have some choice may be stubbornly persistent, hard to manage, or intractable.  Life has a momentum which tends to carry our problems forward into the future for reasons both seen and unseen.   We suffer from the tendency to repeat old patterns over and over again, reenacting painful events or putting ourselves in situations where the same dreaded outcomes are likely to happen again.

Sometimes we bear our struggles and miseries with an added sense of shame and the perception of our own unworthiness.  Nonetheless, within us there is potentiality for change.  Freedom lies in the wise awareness of alternatives and of the ability to choose.  How can we cultivate this freedom?

In order to come to terms with our problems, it is helpful to have some place to “put them”:  a positive context/ frame of human understanding within which the situation can be held and integrated.   Problems entail any number of dysfunctional, ego-centered assumptions, but they also direct our attention to what we need to see.  When we can be deeply present with what is happening, we can see the situation more clearly and discern what is wanted and needed; what is wise.  Very broadly, we need to understand what we think needs to change, and probe the reasons why.   These dimensions of support allow us feel into the problem or difficulty.

In the framework of deep self-inquiry,  we can approach stubborn difficulties by “living in the question” of them. Somewhat analogous to the Zen idea of “koan”, this means that we endeavor to sit with the question; be with it; and repeatedly ask the question as a means of inviting a transformational shift of view. 

This idea first came to me in the form of an epiphany in which I recognized that the problem was the problem!  The very notion that there was a problem supported the idea that there must be a way out, a solution;  which in turn led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure it out.   It was also clear that the process of struggle was counterproductive, distracting attention away from the feelings at the core of the emotional difficulty.  Moreover, getting stuck in trying to figure things out often turned into a problem in its own right.   In contrast, living in the question of something often revealed to me that “the problem” and “the solution” were two sides of a single coin.

Short of waiting for illuminations and epiphanies, there are strategies and practices that we can engage to cultivate change:

  • Clarify your intention. “Inquire deeply” within about what you are trying to change, and why.  What result are you trying to produce?   What are you trying to be, do, or have?   What are you resisting or avoiding?  Who are you trying to become?

       Endeavor to see your intentions clearly.

  • Clarify the obstacles. “Inquire deeply” about how you may be getting in your own way.  

 In addition to what seems to be in the way, notice especially how  you are being with whatever is happening.   What attitude(s) are you carrying?  How are you inhabiting yourself?   What are you embodying?

Endeavor to soften into your experience.

  • Contemplate: are you willing to be changed by change*?

Change is facilitated when we understand what is at stake for us.  The following questions are helpful:

  • How would you be different if life no longer contained this problem or challenge?
  • Who would you be if there were no problem to solve?

The ability to change rests upon our wise and compassionate awareness of the matrix of meaning in which we live and construct our personal experience.   We need to cultivate the awareness and self-reflection that will make this possible.

*Moffitt, Phillip    www.dharmawisdom.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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